Keep Your Eyes on the Enterprise: Emails, Wikis, Blogs, and Corporate Risk

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Wiki Rights and Wrongs
While email was supposed to make work easier, the arduous task of storing it, sorting it, and searching it can be vexing. And while it does provide near-immediate communication, its functionality is limited in some applications. In particular, collaborative efforts, such as brainstorming, marketing strategy, software development, and elearning have been ill-served. Scores of messages and documents, spawned in different formats and stored in personal folders, make it confusing to know which version is current, who made changes, and who else needs to be tapped. In response, a variety of other collaborative tools have emerged, including the wiki. 

Essentially, wikis are simple websites that users can create; post text, sound, and video to; and edit with little or no restrictions and no mastery of arcane code. Wikis found fame in the form of the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, which is written, updated, and maintained by over 75,000 users. Wikis are extremely useful when the goals are that the information gets out to everyone and that things can be updated quickly. If a user commits an error or submits a bad edit, a click of the mouse will roll back the previous version. Theoretically, wikis work because group intelligence drives them toward accuracy and completeness in their coverage of a topic. Because wikis include "histories" of the corrections and revisions, inappropriate or inaccurate information can be traced back to the creator or modifier. This factor alone discourages bad behavior in the form of uploading malicious content or damaging "malware." 

Wikis are taking hold behind the firewall as collaborative tools that provide a more persistent archive with built-in accountability. Many large corporations are using wikis, including Disney, Microsoft, Adobe, IBM, Nokia, Best Buy, Novell, Eastman Kodak, Motorola, SAP, and General Motors. The Gartner Group, a technology research firm, predicts that wikis will become mainstream collaboration tools in at least 50% of companies by 2009. DrKW, a European investment banking firm, has found that among the earliest and most aggressive of its wiki adopters, email volume on team projects is down 75%, and meeting times are cut by 50%.

The rationale is that, in the wiki environment where anyone can manipulate information, you will get more content through inspiring feedback and buy-in from the creators and participants. However, in terms of corporate risk, this is not a prospect without pitfalls.

General Motors (GM) has used wikis both internally and externally. An unintended result of one wiki-based contest to create an ad for the Chevy Tahoe was that a number of anti-SUV customers used this open forum to post warnings about global warming, gas guzzling, and thoughtless drivers, and to generally disparage the vehicles. This, in turn, generated lots of new traffic and resulted in dozens of provocative articles. GM did not pull down the wiki; it kept it up for the duration of the contest. The company chose to post all but the most offensive material, making it appear open and honest about opinions less than favorable to its product in an effort to turn the situation to its advantage.

Also worrisome for wikis is an advisory issued last year by Finjan, a computer security software maker: "Since Web 2.0 platforms [like wikis] enable anyone to upload content, they are easily susceptible to hackers wishing to upload malicious content or code. Innocent visitors to the site can also be infected, and the site owners could then be potentially responsible for damages incurred." 

There is also the potential for employee users to compromise the wiki by posting irrelevant or inaccurate information, divulging corporation secrets, or deleting the current information that is online. In outward-facing wikis, customers may question your credibility, which can lead to a sullied reputation and lost sales.

Public wikis, lacking the infrastructure, controls, and vetting of the corporate wiki, often find themselves channels for error and abuse. Even the venerable Wikipedia, which the journal Nature found to be nearly as accurate as Britannica, has been a target. A prank entry on John Seigenthaler, Sr., a former administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, made headlines when Wikipedia identified him as a suspect in the assassinations of both Robert and John F. Kennedy.

Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, which provides a collaboration tool that captures the features of both wikis and blogs, says, "Adoption of the wiki depends on understanding both its good and bad aspects. You can have mass collaboration and good protection, but there would still be the same buzz surrounding the enterprise wiki as there is for the public wiki: ‘Is the information valid or not?’" Mayfield continues, "While email can be a compliance and control nightmare, corporate wikis—with permissions to access, write, or edit; indexing or tagging for search and recovery; and audit trails—are easily discoverable."

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