Wikis meld white boards, reference docs in digital format
Wikis remain relevant as productivity enhancers
Wikis, which are internal or external websites developed collaboratively, function as repositories of institutional information for companies and organizations. Users add to or edit wikis in a crowdsourced style, and anyone with permission can access them with a Web browser. Some might see wikis as yesterday’s news given the fact that they were first developed in 1994. However, as a collaboration tool, wikis can still provide significant benefits.
“Using collaboration and social software for innovation is still a massive opportunity,” says Sameer Patel, founding partner of the Sovos Group, a San Francisco-based consulting group that specializes in social and collaborative strategy and technology planning. “We’re starting to realize the best ideas don’t come out of research and development, and tools like wikis help more people be involved in ideation.”
Collaboration is especially important, according to a Forrester Research report in March, "The State Of Collaboration Software Implementations: 2011", because today’s workforce is largely decentralized. According to the report, 43 percent of information employees work from multiple locations during the course of a month. This might be why, according to the same report, 42 percent of respondents surveyed say they are spending more (as per Forrester citations) on social tools such as blogs or wikis in 2011. There are many examples in the government world, said Geoff Weber, a principal at professional audit, tax and advisory services provider KPMG’s federal practice, and all allow users to provide information to one another, collaborate and share lessons learned. Still, some agencies are concerned about wiki content, he said. “How do you control what’s posted and what information is provided? Yes, wikis allow for quick online knowledge sharing, but the downside is that it allows anyone to post and share,” said Weber. In some cases, wikis can also lead to a consensus of opinion — right or wrong — being seen and disseminated as fact.
A measured approach
For these reasons, said Claude Baudoin, a senior consultant at Arlington, Mass.-based IT consulting firm Cutter Consortium, organizations must put controls in place before implementing any wiki. To start with, the software, whether it is installed on premises, in the cloud or on an existing software installation such as SharePoint, should be set up so entries cannot be made anonymously. “They should be identifiable by contributor because, in doing that, it creates a sense of responsibility,” he said. This means that new entries as well as edits of existing entries should have author information attached. The lack of authorship data has, in the past, scared some corporate and government users away from implementing wikis.
“This was fueled by Wikipedia, where anything confrontational, such as entries about politics, had to be locked because you’d have people deleting and editing each other’s input with negative results,” Baudoin said.
Organizations might also want to assign someone to oversee the wiki as its site editor. A previous employer of Baudoin assigned leaders to its wikis. These people took a governance role, checking the site to make sure new entries were categorized correctly, well-written and factually correct. Employees felt comfortable using the platform, so participation soared, said Baudoin. “We ended up having a wiki that saw more than 12,000 entries over the course of 18 months, and 1,800 of those were abbreviations and acronyms,” he said.
The wiki was extremely useful in that it accelerated the learning curve for new employees and helped boost the productivity of existing employees because they didn’t have to stop and explain company-centric terms and knowledge, he said. “It becomes a blog about the arcane.”
Another must-do for new wiki implementations: parameters about what should and shouldn’t be included, KPMG’s Weber said. Employees should have an explicit description about what goes into a wiki and what should be left out, and it's always a good idea to include popular and commonly-referenced links and materials. A wiki created by a health care-related government agency might define the term “CRM” very differently than one focused on education. Both might provide a similar basic definition, but then they would be differentiated based on how each uses CRM. “You might include some text that says, ‘If you need an account, here are the people you need to contact, and here’s the link to the user log-in page,’" Baudoin said.
Finally, there should be some incentive to get users inspired and excited about the use of a wiki, even if the only benefit is being able to save time, as is the case with a recent wiki pilot project by the General Services Administration, Weber said. That wiki, named BetterBuy, functioned as a public outreach collection tool that allowed the agency to collect feedback from potential contractors about a procurement platform in testing. It was well received because it allowed the agency to work out details about upcoming contracts and provided a level of transparency that was not possible in the past. “It was a tremendous mechanism to reach out and streamline the process,” he said.