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September 2006
Wikis at Work
Wikis are collaborative websites or intranets that allow anyone to post, edit, delete, or otherwise modify content, and they’re becoming more popular behind the corporate firewall, especially for sharing knowledge between technology workers. Could wikis work for you?
By Mathew Schwartz

Does your workplace need a wiki?

Wikis are collaborative websites or internal sites that allow anyone to post, edit, delete, or otherwise modify content. While the most well-known example of a wiki — Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia anyone can edit or add to — is public, many companies are tapping wikis as internal business tools. The idea: create a free-for-all collaboration zone, or team space, to better support development, documentation, project planning, white-boarding, organize sales prospects, replace groupware, or even to serve as an intranet.

While chaos would seem to reign with wikis, workers — and especially technology workers, including developers, project managers, QA, and product managers — often prize wikis as a way to keep projects quickly and easily organized. Various organizations, including British Telecom, Disney, Motorola, Texas Instruments, and Yahoo!, have adopted wikis for their IT project teams.

The Rise of Social Computing

Why use a wiki? According to Vanessa DiMauro, a principal at Leader Networks and an expert in online communities and social networking, wikis excel at uniting geographically dispersed project teams, “connecting project management and senior technical staffs with clients and project managers,” and sharing non-static, internal company information, including “prospecting lists, user manuals, and employee directories.”

Wikis can work because so many of today’s workplace interactions are already digital, no matter whether employees are a cubicle or a continent apart. “We are becoming a society that treats digital interactions with the same intention as face-to-face,” notes DiMauro. This trend toward more social computing — “a social structure in which technology puts power in communities, not institutions,” according to Forrester Research — has business-world examples, including such peer-recommendation networks as LinkedIn and Plaxo, but is perhaps most pronounced in the social networking sites prized by students and younger workers, including MySpace and Facebook.

In heavily autocratic work environments — you know, the ones with motivational signs extolling teamwork and collaboration — wikis may seem revolutionary. Even so, businesses that want to become more efficient and competitive need to give users the tools they need to more easily collaborate and share information.

Will Wikis Work For You?

Wikis differ from other collaborative tools — including groupware, e-mail, online communities, instant messaging, intranets, and Microsoft’s Groove and SharePoint — because they allow information to be shared and retrieved in a free-form yet user-structured manner. Furthermore, the two most widely used types of wikis — TWiki (a corporate collaboration and knowledge management tool) and MediaWiki (for public-facing uses) — are free.

Are wikis better suited for some business uses over others? “Wikis are currently best applied for shorter term projects or collaborations that do not have a great deal of document sharing and long-term document storage needs,” says DiMauro. In the future, more structured wikis may help solve such issues, yet today’s wikis are not full-fledged enterprise document management systems.

Interestingly, many business wikis seem to arise from grassroots, tech-worker-led implementations. Why is that? According to Peter Thoeny, the creator of TWiki and a co-founder of Structured Wikis LLP, “wikis are embraced first by engineering and related groups,” including developers, product marketing, and QA. Such users are more predisposed to use a wiki — a knowledge-sharing tool — than groups like sales or administration, because for technology workers, “pecking order is by knowledge,” not job title, he notes. Furthermore such users are already comfortable with HTML and, often, the form-based syntax editing wikis use. (Wikis, however, are increasingly offering WYSIWYG editing — a requirement for non-technical users.)

Once a group of users adopts a wiki, Thoeny says previously wiki-averse employees often join in. As one Yahoo! employee writes in an online testimonial, “We’ve got marketing types, lawyers, and others using TWiki on a regular basis.” Furthermore, multiple wikis may exist inside a company. One major computer manufacturer has at least 24 active internal wikis.

The Face of a Wiki

What does a wiki look like? Just like a Web page, anything is possible. In general, however, wikis are largely text-based. Similar to an online message board, users can create a new entry, modify it using some lightweight markup code, then post it for others to see.

A wiki homepage often includes a list of the most recently modified documents, so users can see what’s new and track in-progress projects. For a development group, such a list may include changes to a draft of release notes for a specific product, a developer’s revised list of essential tips and tools, and an updated look at what’s in the test queue. For any given entry, all users can make changes and see all previous changes — including who made them — plus any related comments.

Wikis Must Meet Business Needs

Like all collaboration tools, wikis will not work in a vacuum. “While wikis are currently fashionable,” cautions DiMauro, “there must be a purpose to their deployment for them to be useful.”

In addition, someone must guide a wiki’s implementation, then nurture it long-term. “It is very important to identify and train the right people to take on a ‘wiki champion’ role” before beginning deployment, says Thoeny. “A wiki thrives or dies depending on how it is being used.”

Wiki champions play multiple roles, including cheerleader, administrator, and librarian. They track and guide wiki usage, train and educate users, tweak wiki functionality through hundreds of available plug-ins, and link content to make it more useful. When using a more structured wiki, such as TWiki, in which structure can be added to free-form wiki entries as needed, champions also help organize information to make it easier to find and use.

Some Authority Required

For workplace wikis to succeed, free yet tracked collaboration is key. One exception is the need to restrict some access to sensitive information. “For example, engineering might use ‘view access’ restrictions so that the sales force is not selling stuff that is not there yet,” notes Thoeny. Accordingly, he offers a simple rule for editing business wikis: “If you can look at a page, you should be able to change it.”

As that implies, in today’s knowledge-centric work environments, the free exchange of information isn’t a privilege, but rather a requirement. By supporting such knowledge sharing, wikis are helping reinvent the way people work.

Mathew Schwartz is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Cambridge, Mass.

Comments? Please contact us at feedback@dice.com.
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