Tending the wiki garden

Of all the Web 2.0 technologies, the wiki might be the one that most embodies the new spirit of the Internet: collaborative, transparent, efficient and unpredictable in a good way.

Slowly but surely, government agencies are discovering the benefits of wikis. Some now use them for a variety of mission-critical tasks, including developing budgets, formulating policy and even sharing classified intelligence information.

5 reasons to use a wiki

Wikis get their name from the Hawaiian word for “fast.” Why should agencies use them? They:

1. Deliver organized information to a wide audience quickly.

2. Aggregate knowledge across an enterprise and overcome organizational barriers to collaboration and sharing.

3. Keep serendipitous interaction open across the enterprise, so that people can apply their different talents to a topic or problem.

4. Replace the inefficient point-topoint communications of e-mail and file attachments with a centralized workspace and document-storage facility.

5. Find ways to foster a more inclusive, less risk-averse organizational culture.

Wikis are freely editable Web pages that provide a shared online workspace and creative zone for groups of people joined by a common purpose. The most famous mass-market wiki, Wikipedia, has grown to 75,000 active contributors in its eight years of operation, with more than 10 million entries in 260 languages on its site, www.wikipedia.org. Anyone can build and launch a wiki at minimal cost, for either public or private use, using a commercial hosted service or open-source software.

No matter how big or limited they are in scope, wikis are not set-it-and-forget-it tools that stay relevant on their own.

They require a certain amount of weeding and seeding by wiki managers. In the wiki parlance, they need gardening.

Web 2.0 veterans offer these lessons learned for launching and getting the most out of a government-hosted wiki.

Prime the pump

To convert some of the visitors, especially first-timers, to a new wiki into content contributors, you need to have enough content on the site to pique their interest.

“You need to demonstrate that there’s a product there worth contributing to, instead of just putting up a blank site and saying to people ‘Here it is, now fill it,’” said Brett Mason, a reference librarian at the Loudoun County, Va., Public Library. Mason oversees the library’s wiki. “It takes time to develop different subject areas and get them built up.” Starting in September 2007,Mason and five other library employees he recruited posted information and links in their prototype wiki for a year. The wiki features a public-facing side with information about community and library resources and an internal side that library employees use to post information about departmental procedures and policy.

The library officially unveiled the wiki, LoudounPedia, to the public in October 2008, publicizing it through promotions and a link on the library’s home page. The wiki now has more than 30 authorized contributors, including library employees and county residents, Mason said.

Stick to the tools you know

Many government wikis are built on software platforms that require people to use wiki markup language to create pages. Wiki markup, which is similar to HTML used to create other Web pages, is not highly complex, but it does have enough of a learning curve to deter many potential contributors.

If people can enter or update articles using tools they’re already familiar with, they are more likely to contribute. The Office of Management and Budget is one federal agency that has made progress on that score.

The Budget Formulation and Execution Line of Business’ MAX Federal Community wiki seeks more participation from federal workers involved in budget, financial, performance and other management areas, so the OMB officials who run the system want to eliminate or minimize any obstacles to those potential contributors.

With that in mind, they added a feature to MAX in March that allows users to directly edit Microsoft Office files, including Word, Excel and PowerPoint, that have been posted in the wiki. Users do not need to learn the markup language to post new content to the wiki.

“We considered that a huge capability,” said Andy Schoenbach, chief of the budget systems branch at OMB. “When you’re dealing with the federal government, you’ve got to deal with what people are comfortable with.” MAX has more than 9,500 registered users, about twice the number it had a year ago, Schoenbach said. More than 100 new users register each week, a rate that has doubled in the last year.

OMB officials have also tried to make MAX more useful by adding a tool for creating and sharing charts and diagrams.

Such images offer different ways to present information and draw in users.

“Some people are visual and some are more verbal,” Schoenbach said. “Just having textual material about a topic isn’t always sufficient.” The diagramming tool on MAX is Web based, so users need only a standard Web browser — not special software — to create, share and view diagrams.

“The minute you have to install something on someone’s desktop, you’ve lost half the battle,” Schoenbach said.

Discourage tunnel vision

A good reason to use a wiki is that it facilitates collaboration, allowing many people to contribute information that leads to a better understanding of a topic or a process. This collaboration often involves people from different offices and agencies. However, problems can arise that undermine those benefits when contributors limit their perspectives.

Intellipedia, a government wiki with tens of thousands of users drawn from 16 different federal intelligence agencies, is a model of interagency collaboration, according to Web 2.0 experts.

But even so, some of Intellipedia’s contributors think more about agencies and less about the topic in their approach to the wiki than they should, said Chris Rasmussen, social software knowledge manager and trainer at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. For example, some users put their agency affiliation in front of the topic names of information they post. That unnecessarily singles out the agency and leads to poor organization and information duplication within the wiki.

Rasmussen cited Wikipedia as an example.

If hundreds of people from universities wrote entries about California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and each contributor put a university affiliation in the topic instead of just Schwarzenegger’s name, “you’d have 500 pages on Arnold Schwarzenegger,” he said. “You want one. You want to build cohesion under a topic. We’ve had some problems getting people to understand that, to try to think at the broadest level of a topic first.” That tendency can cause more than just content organization problems. An excessive agency-centered focus among wiki contributors can lead to what Rasmussen calls the “cult of the expert,” in which people feel the need to control a page and lock it down because they consider themselves the experts. That discourages others from wanting to add input, thereby undermining the collaborative nature of the wiki and one of its chief benefits.

Rasmussen said he encourages the people he trains to list skills they have but don’t use in their day jobs — such as foreign languages or advanced degrees — in their Intellipedia profiles. That allows others in search of that expertise to find people on the wiki. When people use those skills outside the boundaries of their normal work, the wiki benefits.

“When you see people contributing different talents on different situations, that helps reduce that desire to lock everything down based on the assumption that everyone’s going to get everything wrong,” he said. “People know a lot more than what they are hired to do.”

Tend the garden

As a wiki begins to grow with more information, contributors and readers, it becomes important to maintain it.

There should be at least one person responsible for organizing the content, weeding out redundant or inaccurate information, guiding new users on the style and process of wiki contributions, and facilitating collaboration on new topics.

This role, often referred to as the gardener, is critical to a wiki’s success, said Lena Trudeau, program area director of strategic initiatives at the National Academy of Public Administration. Trudeau, cofounder of NAPA’s Collaboration Project, which supports government’s use of collaborative technology, said most agencies already have people who can take on those responsibilities.

“What you don’t want to do is create a new silo and say ‘Here’s the wiki group,’” Trudeau said. “Find out who’s passionate about it and who works that way already, like a knowledge management officer, and then incorporate their work on the wiki into their everyday work.” And don’t worry that you will need legions of contributors and gardeners to make a wiki successful, Trudeau said.

“You’ll find that 1 percent of the people contribute most to the wiki, another 9 percent do sometimes, and 90 percent just watch, and that’s OK,” she said.

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