Why You Should Have a Wiki

I’ve mentioned Google Tech Talks before, and I recently watched “The Visual Wiki: a new metaphor for knowledge access and management“.

The Tech Talk was about combining the text-based knowledge management aspects of a wiki with data visualization techniques. It is a fascinating presentation and I recommend watching it, but I'm going to talk more about wikis in general and why your organization needs one.

From, well, wikipedia:

A wiki is a collection of web pages designed to enable anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content, using a simplified markup language.[1][2] Wikis are often used to create collaborative websites and to power community websites. For example, the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia is one of the best-known wikis.[2] Wikis are used in businesses to provide affordable and effective intranets and for Knowledge Management. Ward Cunningham, developer of the first wiki software, WikiWikiWeb, originally described it as "the simplest online database that could possibly work".[3]
In a nutshell, a wiki is a collaborative knowledge management tool. Wikis have a few defining characteristics:
  • Anybody can edit any page or create new pages, using just a browser with no special extensions or add-ons.
  • Wikis promote folksonomy via intuitive page linking.
  • Wikis are constantly changing via the ongoing process of content creation and collaboration.
This diagram is from the previously mentioned Google Tech Talk, and I thought it summed up Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0* and how they relate to knowledge management better than anything I have run across. I liked it so much I recreated it in Inkscape.

In a traditional enterprise environment, information creation is a top-down approach, orgainized by rigid business practices. It’s pushed out via email or (gah!) meetings, it’s locked up in a proprietary data format in either a shared folder or a really expensive shared folder (read: Sharepoint**), and the only time the information gets used is if (a) you can find it, which is unlikely, and (b) you personally need it bad enough to go through (a). That’s knowledge management in an Enterprise 1.0 environment, and it’s the pits. If this is the way your business works, you’re not alone, but you could be doing a lot better.

Wikis represent knowledge management in an Enterprise 2.0 environment. Information creation tends to be bottom-up, though that’s a numbers thing - anybody can create information. It is organized organically in a fully searchable environment where information associations are extremely easy to make. Folksonomy, or social classification and indexing, is the norm. It can be distributed via pull technologies like RSS and is available instantly to anyone with a browser. The information and its associations can be used and easily modified, providing built-in correction and feedback loops. Wikis are a great environment to let organizations identify, create, represent, collaborate, preserve and distribute knowledge.

The most popular wiki software is Mediawiki, the software that drives Wikipedia, Intellipedia (the CIA’s intelligence sharing software), and the majority of the wikis you will run across. It’s PHP software with a MySQL backend. There are probably over a thousand extensions to meet various needs (the Freemind Extension, which adds a flash-based freemind .mm file viewer, is a must for me). It will run on multiple platforms, and it’s free, open source software. You could toss MySQL, Apache, PHP, and Wikipedia on a Linux server and your only cost would be hardware. If you already have a suitable database and web server with PHP set up, getting Mediawiki running will take about 5 minutes.

A big part of my job is evaluating and applying new technologies in our GIS division. Collaborative technologies like wikis are at the top of my list, and I wrote the Collaboration Enterprise Architecture document for our IT department (with a big nod to NC State’s and some others, which I liberally plagiarized). Our departmental wiki has everything from application documentation to database administration notes to coding snippets to staff birthdays. Instead of having to dig through papers or hunt through folders to find information that may or may not exist, our staff can simply do a search. And if the information is incomplete or incorrect when they get there, they can easily change it.

If you haven’t done so already, you should try a wiki with your group. Like any new tool or process, you’ll need to be patient with it until it catches on, but I guarantee you will like the results in the long run.

*The 2.0 label is not a precise thing. The video describes it quite well as a loose collection of tools (wikis, blogs), technologies (RSS, AJAX), and concepts (mass collaboration, social software, etc.).

**Yes, I know Sharepoint 2007 tossed in some web 2.0 components like blogs and wikis in a look-at-me-I’m-still-relevant sort of way. Being Microsoft, they only give the wiki a WYSIWYG editor for Internet Explorer, it uses HTML rather than standard simplified wiki markup, and good luck ever getting your data back out of it. If given a choice, I’d stick with the open, standard, free, better stuff. Just my opinion. If you feel guilty about not spending a bazillion dollars on Sharepoint, send me a check.