Collaborative working can be an arduous process. The scenario is all too familiar: emails get lost or accidentally deleted; versions of spreadsheets or word processing documents are fuddled; a member of the project team goes on leave and no one can access their files.
Desperate for an effective alternative, companies are turning to an open-source online collaboration tool called the wiki. Taken from the Hawaiian word for "quick", a wiki is server-based software that enables users to create and edit content on simple web pages from any browser. Wikis solve many of the problems associated with traditional content management systems, yet they are simple enough for non-technical workers to use.
"Think of enterprise wikis as an electronic version of the post-it note," says Jonathan Spira, CEO and chief analyst of research group, Basex. "They are informal, quick, easy to use, and allow workers to record thoughts and comments contextually."
The success of the Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia written collaboratively by the public, has attracted attention to the technology – as well as to the risks of letting anybody anonymously edit content. While most articles are accurate, its founders admit that errors and even malicious changes have been discovered in some prominent entries.
In spite of the negative press that Wikipedia generated in the latter half of 2005, wikis continue to be taken up by enterprises for a variety of purposes, including document management, project management and as an enterprise knowledge base, working best when recording ephemeral knowledge.
Knowledge workers – particularly those involved in group projects – are increasingly on the lookout for substitutes to endless group emails, which jam up inboxes and fail to capture information in an accessible place. Currently, 90% of collaboration and 75% of a company's knowledge assets exist in emails, according to Ross Mayfield, CEO and founder of wiki vendor Socialtext, but there is no value for the organisation apart from what people produce from the information.
"Wikis work better than email as a group productivity tool because they offer project groups the benefit of capturing the tacit knowledge that manifests itself as a by-product of daily work," says Mayfield.
Alongside the growing email headache, the fact that wikis are affordable and easily adopted, as they are largely open-source and web-based, has prompted a rash of recent adoption of this decade-old technology.
Wikis are often grouped with web logs ('blogs'), another technology that has risen to prominence in the last two years, under the heading of 'social software'. But, says Martin Wattenberg, a researcher on the collaborative user experience team at IBM, the two play different roles.
"Blogs are based on an individual voice; a blog is sort of a personal broadcasting system," he says. "Wikis, because they give people the chance to edit each other's words, are designed to blend many voices. Reading a blog is like listening to a diva sing; reading a wiki is like listening to a symphony."
For example, a blog might be great for reporting a series of customer focus group discussions, but a wiki would be better suited to listing project issues, modifying them and later adding the resolution of each.
Speed is another winning feature. Content in a wiki can be updated without time delay, without administrative effort and without the need for distribution – users simply visit and update an existing web page. "The key difference between wikis and other enterprise collaboration tools – whether portals, Lotus Notes, intranets or the Internet – is how much work is required to get information into or out of the system," says Spira.
Mayfield upholds that wikis can accelerate a project cycle by as much as a quarter or a third. "They are even more asynchronous than email, so they work well across time scales in a corporate setting," he says.
But while user groups are increasingly adopting the collaboration technology, the very nature of a wiki – organic, constantly evolving and unstructured – is posing a challenge to CIOs, who are used to far more rigid information management environments.
Advocates argue that what is lost in control is more than made up for in information flow. But the case of the Los Angeles Times newspaper, which used a wiki to allow the public to edit an online opinion piece, only to have it vandalised with pornography, will prompt many IT managers to think twice before adopting a public-facing wiki.
Intranets are safer places to deploy a wiki. But, like any business tool, it will be a boon to some companies and almost useless to others, according to Elton Billings, a worldwide authority on intranets and creator of wiki forum, Cluebox.com. "Much of this difference has to do with corporate culture and the type of work being done," he says.
Benefits of enterprise wikis:
- No prior knowledge of HTML editing tools needed
- Low upfront investment
- Wiki pages can be edited online in a browser, rather than requiring a separate application
- Facilitates processes of collaborative writing, editing, peer review, commenting and annotating
- Searchable content
- Customisation and branding options are available for the enterprise
- Wikis are scalable and many include useful features for large deployments such as advanced access control lists and integration with directory services
Other useful features include revision control to access any previous versions of each page, rollback to older versions and tracked changes.
However, the lack of quantifiable benefits makes it difficult to measure the return on investment (ROI) provided by wikis. Billings suggests that the same was true of email when it was first adopted in the enterprise, and, instead of ROI, suggests CIOs consider the potential business advantages wikis could yield.
In this assessment, they should consider the types of work being done within their organisation, and whether their corporate culture truly promotes sharing of information and knowledge. "If people routinely work in teams and successful teamwork is a strongly rewarded behaviour, wikis can be a great tool for promoting even greater success," he says.
Entering the mainstream
Smaller companies have often been the pioneers of this technology. A recent survey of 73 companies by IT analyst group Gilbane found that SMEs have been the first to trial wikis, thanks largely to their affordability and ease of use.
Research group Gartner observes that the use of wikis among SMEs is currently dominated by open-source versions of the technology – the low implementation cost is clearly a factor in their adoption – but notes that "the commercialisation of wiki products has now begun".
In the past 18 months, many large companies, including mobile phone giant Nokia and investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW), have adopted commercial versions of wikis. DrKW uses its wiki to encourage geographically dispersed employees to publish and collaborate on reports, for tracking project development, for reducing the number of emails in circulation and in storage, and for sharing and developing new product specifications.
According to Gartner, the three leading vendors of enterprise wikis at present are JotSpot, Socialtext and Atlassian Software Systems. Each of these commercial wiki vendors offer value-added features such as a more user-friendly interface, database integration and forms, while also contributing to the open-source community.
Gartner predicts that by early 2006, one-third of collaboration tools vendors, including IBM and Microsoft, will have begun to incorporate wiki-like functions into existing content management systems and workgroup software. Ward Cunningham, inventor of the wiki, worked at Microsoft for two years before leaving in October 2005 to join the Eclipse Foundation, which promotes open-source development tools.
Currently, the biggest obstacle to the adoption of wikis in the enterprise is acceptance. Users need time to adapt to the notion of editing and adding to other people's work, while managers need to become more trusting of users and embrace the idea that any user with access to the wiki can make changes responsibly.
But Cluebox's Billings argues that CIOs should consider the risk of not implementing wikis. "For companies that do truly promote teamwork and information sharing, employees will likely be looking for any tool that can help them be successful in those areas. If this need for an information sharing tool is not met through a corporate initiative, employees may simply implement wikis on their own," he says.
The pattern will be familiar to any organisation that was slow to recognise other popular, easily adopted technologies. 'Rogue' wikis can become important enough to demand support from the IT department – as was the case with instant messaging when it first emerged in the enterprise.
"Suddenly, the CIO will be faced with the choice of inheriting and supporting multiple different solutions, or migrating existing wikis to a consolidated platform that lends itself to enterprise-level support," says Billings. "Many companies are still trying to figure out how to deal with departmental intranet sites that were established before their IT departments had a web publishing solution in place."
To avoid repeating past mistakes, and for both the benefits of the business, IT management would be wise to investigate wiki technology sooner rather than later.