3 tips to make the most of wikis

Wikis have become an integral part of agencies' effort to share and manage information, but using them well requires some changes of habit.

As agencies position themselves to align with the vision of a 21st-century government, more are turning to wikis as a smarter way to work and share. Spreadsheets and e-mail, time-honored collaboration tools, are losing their luster.

In a July 13 presentation at Tech@State:Wiki.Gov held at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., panelists discussed the function and use of government wikis – websites featuring information contributed and edited by a community. 

The intelligence community has used Intellipedia since 2006, an effort inspired by a 2004 paper by CIA employee Calvin Andrus titled, “The Wiki and the Blog: Toward a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community.” The paper highlighted the need for the intelligence community to adapt to the fast-evolving world.


Related story:

Who's using wikis?


In 2005, Sean Dennehy, a CIA official, began spearheading the initial Intellipedia effort and a year later, the wiki made its debut to the intelligence community. The initiative kicked off first as a pilot program and was later integrated as a permanent feature.

But Intellipedia isn’t the sole tool the intelligence community is using to promote better collaboration.

“It’s not all about the wiki; it’s about a suite of tools that have been made available to the U.S. intelligence community,” Dennehy said. “Over the last five or six years, we have looked at what works on the Internet and [said], ‘let’s bring it in and see if it helps us do our jobs in informing policymakers."

Many of the collaboration tools used by the IC are based on open source code in an effort to minimize costs to the taxpayer, Dennehy said. "I think we’ve done this on a shoestring budget over the past several years,” he added.

Throughout the inception and implementation of Intellipedia, Dennehy said he and fellow CIA colleague Don Burke discovered three core principles in how to best use collaborative tools.

  1. Address the broadest audience possible;
  2. Think topics, not turf;
  3. Replace existing processes with new ones requiring use of the tools.

On the first point, Dennehy said the way the intelligence community and many other organizations work is that employees either have access to a broader, open network or one that’s closed and narrow. Intellipedia falls into the former category, which appears to be necessary for good collaboration.

“Start with a base camp of generic information but then also provide a link or a breadcrumb to the more sensitive data that could be in a proprietary database or just a link saying, ‘For more information, call John,’” he said.

The second principle highlights is an effort to fight the mentality of ownership. In developing Intellipedia, some agencies wanted to put their name on certain wiki pages and keep other agency names off of them. The solution was to add organization credits at the bottom of the page and links to the contributing agencies.

Finally, Dennehy said to focus on replacing existing processes. “You can throw all these tools out on a network and expect people to jump in there and start using them – but they won’t," he said. "People are busy. People are busy with doing their day-to-day work.”

Dennehy suggested migrating some of the regular everyday processes to collaboration tools. For example, the content of an e-mail can easily be moved to a blog, discussion page or wiki, he said.

“All of us can agree that we have e-mail overload; when you start moving into these tools, you still get e-mail but they’re just notifications you can throw away,” he said. “All of the rich content you want to preserve is captured in these tools.”

Tech@State:Wiki.Gov is part of Wikimania, an annual, international two-day conference for the Wikimedia community.

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