Wikis for Business

One of the more useful and cost effective tools for corporations and developers that need to organize large amounts of structureless information is the Wiki. Wikipedia, the largest Wiki in existance, has a good definition of of what a Wiki is here, but the important features of a Wiki are:

1. Users can edit content quickly and easily in their browser without needed any additional tools. This makes a Wiki a low friction tool that actually gets used.
2. A history of these edits is maintained, making it easy to undo mistakes or vandalism.
3. Links between topics are maintained easily and new topics are also easy to create, further reducing the friction of use.

The original Wikis were text only and had few features beyond these three. This was acceptable because most early Wiki users were also programmers and the vast majority of the information they wanted to store was related to code. Modern Wikis (such as TikiWiki) are full content management systems, capable of hosting discussion threads, images and template formatted pages in addition to basic text information.

If find Wikis especially useful as in-house knowledge stores; I recommend that your first foray into using Wikis be deployed to your intranet to avoid the security and content problems that become more acute when deployed to the Internet. However, once you are familiar with your specific Wiki, using a secure Wiki with logins on the Internet is an excellent way to maintain Frequently Asked Question pages and support documents for end users.

Most Wikis are open source, which reduces the cost of acquisition to a quick download. The code itself for most Wikis is easy to maintain, making updates and even customizations a snap for staff programmers. Most are written in PHP, although there are Wikis in many other languages as well: choose one that fits your hosting environment and your staff skill set. Consider though that most programmers can pick up PHP within a week of study; I wouldn't exclude a PHP version if you have programmers who enjoy learning new, simple languages.

Once you have your Wiki up and someone responsible for the occasional upgrades necessary, the harder part of using a Wiki is now faced: getting information into the Wiki. The idea of editing information in a web page will feel odd to many, although thanks to the ubiquitous use of social networks and blogs today it is vastly less jarring that it was a decade ago. I recommend finding a few early adopters who are a bit tech savvy to create pages of interest: human resource policy pages and other topics that employees have a reason to research are a good starting point, as it starting an information store about a specific project that has the companies interest.

Once the initial content is loaded, I have found that a single training session with the remainder of the company is all it takes to give the project momentum: the ease of editing content means that people who know a missing piece about a page can quickly contribute it, while management can review the edit logs quickly to ensure what is being added is appropriate and correct information. This feature (usually called Recent Edits) is a critical one to bring to the attention of any management who finds the idea of company wide editing troubling. Depending on corporate culture, it may be necessary to use logins to establish ownership of edits, although IP addresses of computers is usually sufficient in most companies (as a single user is usually bound to a single machine).

The best feature about Wikis is that, once they gain the critical mass of users, they tend to remain far more up to date than any other method of documenting corporate policy or project documents. The reason is simple: the friction of edits is so low that any errors quickly get fixed and any missing information can be "stubbed" out within moments even by the busiest employee. The workload is distributed and thus light for all (although you will probably find some who enjoy working with the Wiki quite a bit: as the Wiki grows it is useful to harness these people as topic managers for the Wiki and distribute the responsibility for Recent Edit monitoring to these topic managers, avoiding any possible overload on management once things are in full swing).