Hands On: Why You Need a Wiki

You shudder at the prospect of trying to keep everyone involved in your next project on the same page. Think of all the time you'll spend on meetings, phone calls and e-mails ensuring that everyone is working from the latest versions of dozens of documents

Written by Jennifer Rivkin

You shudder at the prospect of trying to keep everyone involved in your next project on the same page. Think of all the time you’ll spend on meetings, phone calls and e-mails ensuring that everyone is working from the latest versions of dozens of documents.

Cheer up. You may never have to go through that again. A wiki, a type of website that allows readers to easily add or edit content — no webmaster required — can liberate you from teamwork torment. “Working together on [a wiki] is like being in the same room together using a whiteboard,” says Steve Savage, president of AdvizeIT Consulting Services Inc. in Toronto. Once your company wiki is in place, your staff will only have to enter a URL to put all the latest project information, such as design documents, schedules and meeting minutes, at their fingertips. (“Wiki” comes from the Hawaiian “wikiwiki,” meaning “quick.”) To add to or change a document, they’ll just click on “edit” and start typing. When anyone on their team logs on, they’ll see the current version.

Although wikis are plain text (read: not so pretty to look at), you can easily attach Word files, PowerPoint presentations, spreadsheets and videos — anything attachable to an e-mail. Want to see what your employees have added or changed? You can be automatically e-mailed whenever a page you’re interested in is altered, or click the “view recent changes” button to compare documents.

All this adds up to big efficiency gains. “We typically find wikis accelerate project cycles by about 25% for our customers,” says Ross Mayfield, CEO and co-founder of Socialtext, a wiki software developer based in Palo Alto, Calif. This productivity gain could equal money in the bank.

There’s more. Not only can a wiki save time and fuel efficient collaboration, it can further enhance productivity by serving as an evolving knowledge base for your company. It’s cheap to set up, because all the versions of the software packages suitable for SMEs are free. And it gives you the power to decide who’s allowed to read-and change — which pages.

The profile of wikis has risen in large part thanks to the success of Wikipedia, a free encyclopedia at Wikipedia.org edited and updated collaboratively by volunteers. The site, whose English version now comprises almost 950,000 articles, has become a respected reference source since its inception in 2001. (A peer review by the weekly science journal Nature concluded that Wikipedia’s science articles, while not perfect, almost equal the accuracy of those in the renowned and expert-written Encyclopedia Brittanica.) If thousands of strangers can collaborate this way, you can, too.

Most companies with a wiki have revenue of less than US$25 million, according to a survey by The Gilbane Report, a Cambridge, Mass.-based content-management consultancy. But even ones with thousands of employees have found wikis easy to use. Tom Wilkinson, a Calgary-based vice-president of Black & McDonald Ltd., a construction and maintenance contractor, says his firm’s wiki has proven to be an ideal way to store information and communicate with its staff of 3,000. The impetus for adopting this emerging technology? B&M’s managers were tired of wrestling with the public folders in Microsoft Outlook they were using to avoid sending scores of bulky e-mails to staff. Information was scattered in files all over the place, says Wilkinson: “There was no global search feature, so you had to go through all 90 public folders to locate specific information. Once you did, a lot of it was out of date.”

When a member of Wilkinson’s information-technology team suggested a wiki might fix this problem, he wanted in. It took in-house techies less than two hours to create a wiki, using TWiki a free software program.

B&M uses the wiki primarily to store knowledge needed by more than one person, such as service operation manuals, staff phone numbers and safety information. Wilkinson says it’s highly efficient because staff make changes to a single, centralized document, and the wiki search engine means “what would have taken an hour to find before takes 20 seconds now.” Although the firm uses password controls to limit who’s allowed to view and edit certain pages, “we haven’t had to do that much,” says Wilkinson. “The revision control works, and people don’t change things for no reason.”

Besides using a wiki to manage documents effectively and store key information, you can also “grab all that tacit knowledge that exists in the minds of workers and make it more explicit,” says David Senf, a Toronto-based program manager at technology research firm IDC Canada Ltd. If you set up a system requiring staff to update information on the wiki continually (which doesn’t take any longer than entering it in their PCs), any authorized employee will be able to access what they require quickly, at any time from anywhere. And departing staff won’t take all their accumulated knowledge with them, because much of it will be stored on your wiki.

Still, who makes sure all that stored content is any good? Everyone, says Savage. Thanks to the power to edit, whoever is reading a page will essentially approve it. Any team member who catches an error can make a correction or, if necessary, revert to a previous version. Since there’s no need to wait for a webmaster to upload content, wikis are usually more complete and up-to-date than static intranets. They’re also far more current than paper-based data stores. And they’re a good tool for developing formal policies and procedures because they’re evolving continuously.

If you’re scanning this story for the catch, you won’t find it. There’s no financial risk to a wiki, because it’s so cheap to set up. The information can be protected behind your firewall. You’re free to set access levels as you wish, from a “democracy” in which any employee is allowed to revise any document to a top-down model in which only senior managers can read and edit certain pages. But if you opt for the latter, don’t limit access too much. Although confidential information and sensitive pages need to be protected, the more staff who have access to a wiki, the better it will work. The point, after all, is to tap into the power of shared information.

There are various ways to get started. You can download and install one of many free wiki engines, hosting it on your server. The TWiki engine, for instance, takes up seven megabytes of hard-drive space — no problem for most servers. You may have to beef up your server’s RAM, depending on how much content you put on your wiki, because attachments can add up. Savage suggests one gigabyte should be adequate.

Your best bet is free “structured enterprise wiki software,” the kind designed for business. TWiki offers plug-ins such as forms to structure content and automatically convert e-mail messages and attachments into wiki pages. Unless you’re tech-savvy, you may need to hire an IT consultant to install the system and handle support, backups and upgrades down the road. But that won’t break the bank. Paul Emond, president of TechSupport.ca, an Ottawa-based provider of outsourced IT services for SMEs, says it cost less than $500 in labour costs to implement his firm’s wiki, and he spends less than $200 a year to maintain it.

Alternatively, you can pick a “hosted-enterprise” wiki service. Socialtext, for example, offers a 30-day free trial, and for US$10 per user per month will set you up and provide tech support, security, maintenance and training.

If you test a wiki for a small group project or a limited set of documents, it won’t take long to see whether it works for you. “It’s amazing how many times I look back and say, ‘Man, I’m glad I put that stuff in there’,” says Wilkinson. “I don’t know how I did without it.”

© 2006 Jennifer Rivkin

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com