Categories: Ideas/Insights

Wikis in the workplace

If it were up to me, I would require all documentation on a project to be done in a wiki. I mean everything. For example: documenting business processes, problems and their solutions, people’s contact details, system details, project issues, project processes, ideas, proposed ways of doing things, FAQs, etc. What stops you from putting meeting minutes into a wiki? I guess nothing, provided you can implement some form of access control, which fortunately, good wikis provide.

Document management systems are also good and have their purpose, but updating knowledge in a document management system is simply not as easy, and not as flexible. Editing documents is rather cumbersome, and creating inter-document links like you would do in a wiki is simply not practical.

Of course, it would be good if a wiki is complemented by a good document management system, where you can keep all your formal documents (which you do need, after all) and all reference documentation, which you could point to from your wiki.

You don’t have to limit the use of a wiki to projects, though. I think for day-to-day use it is also a great way of gathering the combined knowledge of a team or department in one place. It is a great way of preserving knowledge, as people come and go, and normally take huge amounts of intellectual capital with them when they leave.

I have started a wiki both at my old place of work and on the project I am currently working on. I can’t say that I’ve learnt any significant lessons from doing this; I only have some vague notions about requirements for success of wikis in such environments.

After researching the available options out there (and limiting myself to open source solutions), I decided on MediaWiki, because, aside from the many great features, it is easily the most widely used wiki software out there, and probably has the biggest community support, thanks to it being used as the software for Wikipedia and all its related projects. You can also extend it using many community-written plug-ins, or even write your own. Literally hundreds, if not thousands of sites use MediaWiki as their wiki engine.

The only drawback I have found with MediaWiki so far is that it does not support WYSIWYG editing out of the box. Although there are workarounds for it, which you will find if you search for them, they seem a bit shaky, and I’m not sure I would trust them for productive use. WYSIWYG is a big issue, however. I get the startling impression that even people who have been programming for a long time and who should therefore be rather technically inclined, have some sort of aversion to any type of markup, even though it is fairly simple and you can learn enough of it in 10 minutes to create very useful content. (I mean, zillions of contributors to Wikipedia can’t be wrong, right?)

The thing that makes wikis so great, which can also be a problem, is the fact that you can use them to document absolutely anything. It’s a problem because it seems that most people are conditioned to using highly structured software that is designed with a particular purpose in mind. A wiki on the other hand, has no prescribed structure, and therefore requires some creativity on the part of the user. If you apply a little lateral thinking however, you will soon discover that a wiki offers you limitless possibilities.

I have found that for a wiki to be successful, you need management to drive its use, and you need consensus from everyone that the wiki should be the central repository of knowledge. This is easily the biggest challenge. Once you have reached some form of critical mass, the momentum should be enough to be self-sustaining, but I have not seen that happen yet in the two scenarios I have mentioned. Getting people enthusiastic about a wiki is not as easy as I thought it would be.

It is surprising to me, given the usefulness of wikis, that they have not taken off in a big way internally in corporate environments (at least the ones I have experienced). I guess what is needed is one or two big players to sell the concept; Microsoft’s Sharepoint Server includes wikis, and apparently, although I have no proof, SAP have promised to bring out wikis with KM for years (but so far nothing).

In the meantime, why not whip up an installation of MediaWiki for the old team? If you use XAMPP, it takes you literally 5 minutes to get it up and running (I’ve tested this on Windows only) and you will have yourself a nifty little (though immensely powerful and valuable) knowledge base to conserve everything for future generations of co-workers.

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