Collaborative Working With Wikis

    April 28, 2005

The Financial Times has an excellent report on why wikis are an effective collaborative tool for the workplace, quoting examples from three prominent companies …

“It helps to think of [a wiki] as a sort of online whiteboard,” says Gary Boone, research manager at Accenture’s technology laboratories. “We set up a blog and wiki system for 100,000 employees about a year ago and we now have 245 wiki pages. Most of the use is by small work groups with particular projects – things like people talking about design issues and eliminating software bugs.”

In the UK, the BBC is another big user with about 40 wikis accessed by about 400 people. Their applications, says Euan Semple, BBC director of knowledge management solutions, range from shared workspaces for teams to low-cost websites anyone can set up. “We also have several groups in new media who are using wikis as a means of doing their day jobs now.”

[At Les Blogs in Paris on Monday, Euan provided some insight into some of the experimental things going on at the BBC where wikis are but one element.]

Microsoft is also walking the way of the wiki. “For certain uses”, says Pete McKiernan, product manager, “it is an exceptionally effective approach.” One of their key characteristics, he adds, is that making changes is “trivial” – it is very easy and the documents are quite basic. So people do not feel as if they are attacking some beautiful edifice, a problem that has occurred with other collaborative attempts. Ward Cunningham, a software architect at Microsoft and the inventor of the concept, says: “A wiki is the smallest, lightest thing that can host a collective work.”

These are good examples indeed of how wikis can be used in the workplace. One disadvantage, though, is that wikis can appear daunting at first in that adding and editing content isn’t as simple as, say, doing the same in a Word document. No real WYSIWYG here – you’re confronted with getting into HTML code and the choice of formatting is somewhat limited. It reminds me of what creating web pages looked like in the mid 1990s.

But, as the FT article comments, the advantages of wikis outweigh most major concerns:

Managers do worry that people will deface pages they can edit. Yet if the wiki is located on an intranet, defacement is unlikely for the same reason that staff do not usually scribble profanities on the office whiteboard. Rather, it will allow employees to correct something as trivial as a telephone number without having to contact information technology systems.

There is also a safeguard: wikis retain previous versions of documents, allowing versions to be restored. And, if someone does put something offensive on a wiki page, at least you know who did it.

If you routinely collaborate with others on creating and editing documents, a wiki is definitely worth considering.

On a simple level, it’s a far more effective collaborative tool than those Word documents that go around groups and that come back to you with a zillion tracked changes with the text in a rainbow of different colours that makes it almost impossible to see what you’re doing.

Financial Times | The advent of the online whiteboard (paid subscription required)

If you’ve not seen a wiki before, take a look at the New PR Wiki or the Wikipedia encyclopedia, two public wikis. They don’t look that different to regular websites. But look closely – you can edit them just using your browser.

Neville Hobson is the author of the popular blog which focuses on business communication and technology.

Neville is currentlly the VP of New Marketing at Crayon. Visit Neville Hobson’s blog: