Will a Wiki Work for You?

In the warp speed of the web world, it’s hard to believe that it’s been over 10 years since the original “wiki” was invented. This was before the web became a household and office tool as essential as oxygen and just as email was starting to be adopted on a large global scale.
The current day wiki is a web page that anyone can edit using a tool which resembles a simplified word processing editor, without having to know any programming.

What’s in a wiki? Potentially anything the contributors want to include, which explains a wiki’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness all at once. The content of the wiki draws its strength on the collective knowledge and participation of its viewers/users to build and collaborate something like a body of knowledge, a tool, or just an information sharing site.

The Wiki began in 1995 when an American software developer Ward Cunningham, was working with an Apple product called Hypercard and was looking for a better way to make the exchange of ideas between programmers easier.

He developed an enhanced version of this product which would allow any developer in this community to quickly add their input into a webpage, which would serve as a repository for all the ideas contributed. This would avoid the normal cumbersome process of soliciting feedback, reviewing edits, circulating the documents and so on.

Ward dubbed the tool Quickweb initially but changed his mind when he remembered a shuttlebus in the Honululu International Airport called the Wikiwiki that runs between the airport terminals. “Wiki” is the Hawaiian language word for fast and since his idea was to create a web page that could be edited quickly, the tool was renamed the wikwikiweb (wiki for short) and the rest is history.

Since then, the wiki has become an integral part of the collective group of applications/tools loosely called ‘Web.2.0” These tools share in common the focus on using the web medium for sharing and collaboration. (see “Content in the Web 2.0 World”)

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia (www.wikipedia.org) is arguably the most famous and the largest wiki in existence. With over 2 million articles in over 30 languages, it represents a pretty good shot of being the preliminary source of information on just about everything from gazpacho soup to quantum physics and the theory of relativity. (Wikipedia gets over 2.4 billion page views a month and is housed in multiple data centers on over 120 servers.)

Unlike blogs, which usually have one author, whose opinion and tone give the blog its personality, think of wikis as a collective “common garden.” In its most open format, anyone can seed a thought, an idea, or contribution. There are no real rules that apply – just the spirit of collaboration and a community of interest. And unlike forums and chats, the main body of the “garden” continues to grow and change, with all previous iterations available for viewing if the odd destructive individual shows up to vandalize the community wiki.

Typical Elements of a Wiki Garden

Wiki Garden

Like most communities of interest, many people will participate simply as observers and enjoy the fruits of the contributions made by others to the wiki garden. They will not necessarily contribute significant efforts to its development or maintenance, but they will participate occasionally, support and enjoy its existence by simply using the information when required.

Then there are others who will act as “wiki gardeners” who will build, contribute and give the wiki its content information as well as tend the wiki to make sure that vandals don’t destroy or disrupt the peaceful, collaborative works that are going on in the wiki.

If all goes well the wiki garden will grow nicely and evolve as guided by its “gardeners”.

As an example of the opportunities available to engage and solicit input from a community of interest, check out the example of a local event held recently at an art house hotel in Toronto called BarCamp, which was described as a “adhoc gathering of designers, bloggers, transit geeks, cultural creators,” who voluntarily gave up a full Sunday to utilize their noteworthy skills to get together and play in a “solutions playground” on a variety of topics that would improve the operations of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC). What is truly unique about this gathering is that the origins are purely grassroots with a small group of organizers pulling the event together in a few weeks, who had no direct involvement with the TTC at the start but simply the idea that the TTC was a city wide treasure that had a fan base that would be interested in lending their talents and creativity to helping “The Better Way”(the TTC slogan) be truly better.

Surprisingly, a hardy and enthusiastic bunch of about 100 people with no official involvement with the TTC heard about this event and showed up for a full day of conversations, meetings, and idea generation, the output of which is stored in a wiki. http://toronto.

 Senior level TTC representatives were asked to participate, and by sending several high level participants, the forum was given legitimacy and a direct link to processes and machinery of a largely closed bureaucratic organization.

But this idyllic garden is based on the idea of free flow of information, sharing and collaboration and everyone playing nicely in the sandbox. There were no company politics, no corporate secrets, and no hidden agendas.

Recognizing the immense creative and intellectual capital that is possible to harness with a collaborative framework like a wiki, the world of corporate business has been trying to get in on the act. Many well informed CEOs, managers, and business types have all heard about Web 2.0, social networks, and blogs. Some executives may even have their own blogs –and despite the fear and protestations of their communications staff who stress about the damage to corporate messaging that they have strived so hard to create, they’re essentially used from the top down, to convey the CEO’s message to its employees.

Wikis, on the other hand, represent the counter culture view that knowledge is flat and can exist anywhere and everywhere.

So the million dollar question is, how will corporations embrace the concept of wikis, which are by definition, open forums for people to share and collaborate. While this sounds great, most large organizations are still built from a top down, hierarchical, chain of command perspective where knowledge is power and if the knowledge of the people can be effectively pooled and utilized, what does this do to management and the structures we’ve all come to know and love?

But what about production for profit companies, and organizations. Will a wiki work? What about organizational structure? What about top down management? What would happen if employees were let to run loose with what they know and what it they actually know more than management? God forbid!

Management guru Peter Drucker, commented that with web tools and wikis, the means of production now lies in everyone’s hands. This concept is a game changing idea which is explored in the new book “Wikinomics – How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.”

Wikinomics does a great job describing the brave new world of business where collaborative tools like wikis have changed the entire way we produce things for fun and profit – especially for those in knowledge based industries. Unlike old business models, with their hierarchical structures and top down flows of knowledge and power, the new world models are based on the premise that information knowledge is flat and the ideas and knowledge needed to increase a company’s innovative agility and intellectual power, are available throughout its employee ranks, not only in the executive offices, and may indeed lie even outside the corporation itself, with consumers, partners and other interested parties. Anyone and everyone can be a resource with ideas that can be tapped, whether they are on the payroll or not.

The world of the web has democratized information and made collective knowledge available and accessible to anyone worldwide who has access to network access and a device to access it, whether it be a computer, a Blackberry or any other mobile computing device.

Those corporations that can figure out a way to engage and elicit the intellectual capital of its people and communities of interest through the effective deployment of wikis will likely enjoy the same success as the technology itself.

Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.