Untangling Enterprise Wikis

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Selecting a Wiki
The wiki marketplace is a crowded one. Pure-play wiki vendors are working hard to stand out from the crowd, while larger software companies, including IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft, have been busy including wiki functionality in their products.

As with related marketplaces, e.g., web CMS, start with a critical review of your requirements and how they match with a shortlist of vendors. While closely evaluating vendors for the "Enterprise Social Software Report" (CMS Watch; June 2008), we found significant differences among the wiki solutions. Some, e.g., Mediawiki (the engine behind Wikipedia) require more technical skill than others do. In general, handling attachments in an efficient way is also a problem in most products. Search is another frequent problem that came up as an annoyance in many products.

The good news is that generally it is easy to get up and running. Most vendors offer either a simple download or a hosted option so that you can easily and closely evaluate the products yourself. If you plan to get external help, e.g., for changing the layout or training, experienced help may not be easy to come by, depending on your location or your need for somebody to come on-site.
Unfortunately, there are no standards and little help for migrating to another wiki later on, so make sure to allow enough time for due diligence before making your decision.

Ensuring Adoption 
Once you have selected the right wiki, the really hard work begins. Even though the features of a wiki may seem simple and few, you should not leave out training. Do not expect everybody to find the wiki easy and simple to work with. In reality, a wiki requires a shift in perspective when working with content. For some, it is a dramatic shift in mind-set to be sharing one’s work in progress and potentially allowing everyone to make changes to it. 

Adding to this are the usability issues. Many nontechnical users have problems with the use of technical and proprietary markup. Without training, many employees never discover useful features, such as email notifications of recent changes or instructions for working offline. 

Our key advice for ensuring adoption is to start with a wiki with some content in it. Before launching, populate the wiki with information and basic structure for employees to further develop themselves.

Setting Up Guidelines

Beyond training and a successful launch, you will need some guidelines down the road as the wiki grows. Consider Wikipedia, which has strict guidelines and policies in place. This carefully documents everything from the overall purpose of Wikipedia to how to name a page. Even if your wiki is significantly smaller in scale, the lessons learned by Wikipedia may be a helpful inspiration for your wiki initiative.

The simplicity of adding new pages and linking them together often causes any attempt at information architecture to run wild. Managing a wiki requires finding the right balance between keeping the flexibility of the tool and introducing some form of control, e.g., in the form of guidelines.

As an example, consider the naming of pages: How do you avoid redundancy in pages on the same topic? Project names may be obvious, but what about subject matters or time-related material, e.g., how do you link an agenda for a meeting next week? To avoid chaos, you should at least document a standard for how to name pages. Also, you may or may not want to allow everybody to edit the front page.

Similarly, while a wiki stresses flexibility by not enforcing templates, developing some agreed-upon guidelines for templates can help contributors work more effectively. One such guideline can be to use a table of contents on the top of every page to help readers scan long pages more easily.

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