Exploiting the power of enterprise wikis

Exploiting the power of enterprise wikis

Summary: As part of my recent exploration of developing strategies for using Web 2.0 in the enterprise, I find that time and again the lowly wiki presents itself as the most likely target for the initial adoption in the enterprise. For one thing, almost everyone has heard of a wiki, that Web page that anyone authorized to can edit at the push of a button, all without knowing even a smidgen of HTML.

TOPICS: Enterprise 2.0

As part of my recent exploration of developing strategies for using Web 2.0 in the enterprise, I find that time and again the lowly wiki presents itself as the most likely target for the initial adoption in the enterprise.  For one thing, almost everyone has heard of a wiki, that Web page that anyone authorized to can edit at the push of a button, all without knowing even a smidgen of HTML. 

Famous exemplars help too, and Wikipedia is of course the most well-known example of a wiki.  But it's good wiki products for the enterprise that make it all real however, and with this in mind I cited a number of enterprise-quality wiki products in my recent Enterprise Web 2.0 software list.

Many of us are familiar with the practice of quickly setting up a wiki to work on a team project and centrally collect and organize information with little actual central control and usually a minimum of setup and configuration.  To take it to the next level however, a post I came across today via Marshall Kirkpatrick points to a fascinating article by Michael Hickins that hints at the deeper, underlying potential of wikis to provide potent returns for relatively minor investments.

 Consumer Web 2.0 Context


However, before we get into details of the full potential of wikis in the enterprise, let's take a quick tour again of the context we're using for this effort.  While the full vision of Web 2.0 is largely contained in this detailed diagram of Web 2.0, I've provided a simpler version above that really focuses on the key aspects that we'll primarily explore here.  While it still looks a little formidable, the net result accurately depicts a view of online software that fosters decentralized communities of involved, contributing users that are in turn empowered by trust, control, and open tools. 

I often talk about the trinity of Web 2.0:  People, Information, and Software, in that order.  But I've added a verb to the trinity in the diagram above, in order to make clear that's the people – on the Web or on the intranet – that actually provide the valuable content by virtue of their participation: attention, content, and other collaborative efforts that they bring to the table.  (See Ross Mayfield's great Power Law of Participation for the full spectrum participation activities.)

The article by Hickens that I mention above makes some particularly interestings points about structure, again emphasizing what we're increasingly coming to understand as the complexity of tools inhibiting the very things that we're trying to do with them.  Hickens cites the success of BizWiki by CustomerVision, both in terms of lowered barriers to capturing content as well as adoption by enterprises:

BizWiki, which is provided as an on-demand service, allows users to create and edit content without having to adhere to a rigid content management format.

It also allows users to get authoritative information using an "Ask the Expert" function. Responses from designated experts can be automatically posted as a piece of content. "It helps corporations retain intellectual capital and dynamically build their content bank," said Brian Keairns, CustomerVision founder and vice president of product management.

And the business world seems to be biting. Without the benefit of a marketing push, CustomerVision has won over about 100 customers. The company also said that revenue has been growing by more than 300 percent per year. Many of its customers are Fortune 1000 companies shelling out anywhere from $100 to $5,000 per user per month, depending on the size of the implementation.

Interestingly, the article also notes that some enterprises want to be able to connect their wiki into existing workflow processes within the organization.  This could be another bit of useful enterprise context that we can add to the mix.  In fact, I've discussed in the past how guided interactions will be increasingly important in the enterprise as services, enterprise mashups, and BPM are woven into the fabric of complex business processes. 

However, this level of integration may again impose too much structure and runs the risk of raising the barrier to participation to an undesirable level.  Mark Choat, wrote about similar issues recently in his enterprise wiki article on CMSWatch and agrees, noting:

The fact that wikis are decentralized and lack sophisticated workflow systems and approval processes is considered a feature of wikis and not a fault. This is contrary to the basic philosophy of many content management systems, which emphasize control over empowerment.

Enterprise Context for Wikis

Blogs and wikis are slightly different forms of two-way content management; they diiffer significantly in who is allowed to subsequently control what is published (blogs typically only let the original publisher change content, while wikis often let anyone change anything.)  Given however, their similarity in other respects, I believe the enterprise context overlaps extensively between the two.  In this vein, and adding what we've already learned about the enterprise context of blogs, et's take a look at the enterprise context for wikis:

  • Integrated Enterprise Security (SSO, LDAP, Identity 2.0, etc.)
  • Content Auditing and Policy Support (Automated)
  • Open and extensible (inbound and outbound integration points)
  • Support for enteprise search
  • Internal and exernal hosting options
  • Integration with standard workflow products and standards (BPEL, for instance)
As for the purposes that wikis are used for, I again refer you to the Gilbane Group's relatively recent survey on the use of such technologies.

Up next: Blogs and wikis are self-guided content management tools.  Guided content management and workflow integration might be valuable, or it might impede the emergence of tacit interactions, something that many believe are the next big frontier in worker productivity.  We'll look at things like BPM 2.0 next.

What other context is missing ?  And should any enterprise context for wikis be taken away?

Topic: Enterprise 2.0

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  • Wikis in business settings

    Hello. Nice to see Marshall Kirkpatrick referenced here. I watched him a few weeks ago advising a client on Web 2.0 tools and does Marshall know his stuff.

    One big hurdle, seems to me, to the widespread use of wikis in business settings, is that so many people have atrocious writing skills and know they do and so are wary of contributing to online discussions. Also, you don?t necessarily want to set yourself up for ridicule by writing down what others may regard as unworkable or inane ideas. There is also the matter of tact, which so many people lack.

    Also, people may know what a wiki is but very few have ever contributed to one. I just now visited Wikipedia and changed one word in the article on William Gladstone. That was relatively easy, but I am a fairly experienced computer user and if I were writing something that could be read by my entire department at work, nerves might play a major role. Further, the interfaces of wikis must become as clean and as easy to use as email in order to catch on. Gobbleygooky pages are a problem. I don?t have time at work to go through so many screens.

    • Not just thier lousy writing skills...

      ... but their lack of time. The more companies "rightsize" the workforce, the less the people with critical knowledge have time to do anything other than their job. I have worked at companies that invested massive amounts of money and effort into Knowledge Management systems. No one used them, simply because no one ever had time to update them. The information got old and stagnant, and people quickly learned that if you needed up-to-date information to just call or walk over to the person that had it.

      Also, many people are reluctant to document their job, because they feel that it takes a bit of job security away from them. I don't have that problem, but many people do.

      Justin James
    • RE: wikis in business settings


      That's why it's important to have bad content on the wiki. I know it sounds silly, but the atrocity of poor writing and tactlessness is a very common phenomenon, and wikis excel at harnessing the vast knowledge of common folk. To deal with these problems, what is really necessary is a technical means for excellent content to bubble up. That is, if I add inane content to the wiki, it'll be added to a mass of inane content, waiting to be evolved. When it has been evolved, the system mines the gestures of it's users, and pushes the content to become more visible--through feed visibility, popular tags, user ratings, etc.

      IMHO, the largest problem to be addressed here is the liability the business feels to always have accurate data in it's sanctioned repositories. This is an old-fashioned, harmful, and strangling notion that must be overcome before wikis can reach critical mass in the enterprise.

      • The importance of bad content

        Justin makes a good point about people not wanting to document their jobs. The more you document your ideas and doings, the more vulnerable you become, perhaps, to scrutiny. I would be interested to know if there are documented instances of anyone in the corporate sector who has risen with remarkable speed solely or primarily based upon contributions to a wiki. Certainly there are those who have made a name for themselves in the outside world as bloggers. But are there stories anyone rising through the ranks with astonishing rapidity solely via the wit or pungency of their contributions to a corporate wiki? Or via particularly skilful email writing, for that matter? Or via comments in blogs (as opposed to being a blogger proper)?

        I loooved Kurtiss? opener, ??it's important to have bad content on the wiki.? Even better, ??if I add inane content to the wiki, it'll be added to a mass of inane content, waiting to be evolved.? What a charming crystallization of the American way of doing business. The trouble is, that sort of thing could work in a company like Google or Yahoo. But I work in hospital and I rather doubt that my CEO would regard an ever growing mass of inane content as something he would want to finance. It is an unfortunate fact of life that the very word ?wiki? sounds juvenile. Appending the word ?enterprise? in front of it makes it sound expensive and juvenile.

        I am in favor of wikis. I just happen to work in the fuddy-duddy healthcare industry in which being strangled is a matter of course. The wiki thing is not going to be easy.

        • I did well based on contributions

          It was not a wiki, it was in standard Word documents, but I actually had quite a nice run at one company based on documenting my job. In a nutshell, the job security thing cuts both ways. When you document yourself so that you are no longer needed, yes, you are now a prime "rightsizing" target. On the other hand, when promotion opportunity presents itself, management feels comfortable in taking you out of your current circumstances, because you are no longer the only person who can do your job. Documenting my job has also proven immensely valuable, as it shows management that I am a team player and actually understand my job. It also displays that I have the "soft skills" like writing that managers look for when considering promotions.

          All of that aside, the only reason why I had the chance to write as much documentations as I did, was because I worked the second shift and had a few hours of downtime in each day. Without that downtime, there is no way that I would have documented a thing, unless I did it off-the-clock, on my own time.

          Justin James
          • Soft Skills

            Hi, Justin. It'll be interesting to see if the rise of enterprise wikis will increase the demand for good writing skills. I can just see composition department heads at universities across the country approaching deans of liberal arts schools with grand plans for promoting composition courses in schools of business and engineering. They have been doing that for years of course, but now they have more ammunition. But what the enterprise wiki movement really needs is a profile in Fortune or Business Week of somebody who zoomed to the top based on celebritydom in an enterprise wiki a la Scoble in bloggerdom.