How to Use an Open Source Wiki to Transform Information Exchange

Welcome to the wonderful world of wikis and better information sharing. But midmarket CIOs need to consider the limits and best use of this groupware tool before signing on.

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This open source software for document management and collaboration is popping up at midsized companies. Does your organization have the culture of trust to make it work?

wiki < wick'ee > (n.)

  1. Web-based software that allows users to add, edit or remove content.


  2. A word that comes from the Hawaiian expression wiki wiki, meaning "quick" or "fast."


  3. The first wiki was created in 1994 as WikiWikiWeb and put online in 1995 by Ward Cunningham.


  4. Source: Wikipedia

At the USC Annenberg Center for Communication (ACC) in Los Angeles, the process of scheduling dozens of annual journalism and media-related conferences used to be quite a mess. "It was about a million emails and phone calls with forwards and attachments for catering, menus, hotel information and other activities," says Todd Richmond, a senior research fellow at ACC. "It was a nightmare."

As ACC's events programs expanded over the past year, the workload became overwhelming for the organization's lone events coordinator to manage. Then it occurred to Richmond that he could use a wiki: a simple, open source software tool he'd relied on for small projects in the past. Could it solve his event-scheduling problem?

A wiki creates a free-form shared space in which multiple users can create and edit one another's documents. Everyone works with the same version of a document, and changes are tracked so they can easily be undone.

At Richmond's urging, ACC turned to a wiki from Socialtext Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif. The software restored order, saving the events coordinator about 10 hours a week by improving accuracy and adding structure through the use of templates. Details like catering, room reservations, equipment logistics and travel information are now entered by the people who know the information best. Everyone involved can be notified of updates by a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed.

No longer having to worry about "who's got different versions of a document is a huge relief," says Richmond. And best of all: The tool costs only a few dollars a month.

A Wiki Wave?

In a world of costly, complex and overengineered software, wikis are gaining popularity because they're simple, inexpensive and do one thing very well. They work best in groups of up to a few hundred users where there's a culture of trust, experts say. That makes wikis ideal for midmarket companies. In larger, more anonymous environments, however, wikis can be hard to maintain and are prone to vandalism.

Wiki Tools and Resources
If you want to wade into the wiki waters, there are plenty of options, including hundreds of open source wikis available for free download. For a comprehensive list, go to www.wikipedia.org and search on the phrase "wiki software."

Open source wiki software tends to lack the sophisticated security and management features of commercial alternatives, however. It may also use a markup language that your users find difficult to learn. But it still offers an excellent low-cost alternative to traditional document management software.

Popular open source wikis include TWiki, Kwiki, PmWiki, MediaWiki, TikiWiki and MoinMoin. MediaWiki is the software that runs the Wikipedia Web site. These differ principally in their ease of use and power. All these wikis have large, active user bases that can provide support, and numerous plug-in modules are available.

Commercial options include the following:

Atlassian Software Systems. Atlassian boasts more than 700 enterprise customers. Its Confluence wiki has a WYSIWYG editor, flexible search options, strong security, directory integration and an open source base that makes it easy to extend. Pricing ranges from $1,200 for 25 users to $8,000 for an unlimited license.

JotSpot Inc. JotSpot positions its hosted wiki engine as an application platform. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has customized wikis for project management, bug tracking, recruiting and other applications. There's also a hardware-based wiki appliance for enterprise use. Monthly pricing ranges from $10 to $200, depending on the number of users.

Socialtext Inc. Socialtext, also based in Palo Alto, positions itself as "the leading enterprise wiki." It sells an appliance-based wiki for use behind a firewall and has a long list of management and security features. It also hooks into traditional e-mail systems. Pricing starts at $95 per month for a single user and less than $5 per month per user for 500 licenses.

Wikispaces. You can create an advertising-supported wiki for free at this site.

Mainstream players are also getting in on the act. Lotus Notes is developing plug-ins for its collaborative software line that will allow content to be published as a wiki. Microsoft is developing a wiki template for its SharePoint collaboration server. Content management vendors Five Across Inc., iUpload Inc. and Alfresco Software Inc. have also announced plans to support wiki functionality.

And the wiki concept is emerging in other products. Dan Bricklin, president of Newton, Mass.-based Software Garden and inventor of the PC spreadsheet, is building wikiCalc, a wiki version of the financial analysis tool. It will enable users to develop complex financial models as a group.

--P.G.

"Wikis assume that healthy community dynamics will apply," says Cesar Brea, global practice leader in Monitor Group's Marketspace Advisory unit. "You have to think about who you invite to participate and what kind of moderation you need."

Because wikis are so new -- commercial products have been around for only a couple of years -- they have yet to appear on most CIOs' radar. They are a classic back-door technology, analysts note, since many wikis are sold as a service over the Internet, making them nearly invisible to the IT organization.

But CIOs are beginning to scramble to understand and control them, says Jim Murphy, a research director at AMR Research who has written extensively on the topic. "They want to get a handle on this before it gets a handle on them."

The technology is also getting a second look because of Wikipedia, a public, community-edited encyclopedia that is ranked as the No. 1 Internet-based reference site by the Web ranking service Alexa. No one tracks the size of the wiki market yet, but The Gilbane Report from Bluebill Advisors Inc. found that 60% of 73 companies surveyed were using or planning to use a wiki.

Commercial wiki vendors say business is brisk. Socialtext's customer base has swelled from 75 to more than 400 customers in a little more than a year. Confluence, a wiki sold by Sydney, Australia-based Atlassian Software Systems, has signed 1,000 commercial customers in the past two years. And Wikipedia, with 3.7 million articles in 200 languages, made news after a controversial article in the science journal Nature contended that its accuracy was comparable to that of the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Mainstream vendors are also taking up the charge. IBM recently added wiki functionality to Lotus Notes. Microsoft is developing wiki templates for its SharePoint collaboration server. IUpload, a content management software provider in Toronto, Canada, has made it possible for any content item to be posted as a wiki. "Any time during the past 12 months that we've gotten involved in corporate blogging deployments, the question of interacting with wikis comes up," says CEO Robin Hopper.

Wikis were conceived a decade ago by Ward Cunningham, now a director at the Eclipse Foundation, an open source software development organization. Hundreds of open source wikis are available on the Internet, and several commercial versions are sold or licensed as hosted services (see "Wiki Tools and Resources").

The idea is simple. Users start with a blank sheet or template and enter information. Anyone can add to or edit anything in the workspace and republish the page for everyone to see. Changes are tracked in a database and can be easily audited and reversed.

Experts say wikis are the perfect intranet platform because everyone in an organization can edit the content and keep it current. The technology also excels in group collaboration settings where e-mail has run out of steam. The software supports attachments and hypertext links, integrates well with e-mail and content syndication systems, and is simple to set up. "It's just a simpler means of publishing," says Lauren Wood, a program manager at Sun Microsystems who wrote the 2005 Gilbane Report prior to joining Sun last year.

In the age of compliance, wikis also provide simple change management features that are far easier to audit than piles of e-mail exchanges. "Wikis are democratizing content in organizations, and you don't need a brain transplant to use them," says Peter O'Kelly, a Burton Group research director.

Wikis can also pick up where e-mail leaves off, users say. Once projects include more than four or five participants, e-mail exchanges become clumsy and unreliable. That's a perfect time to turn to a wiki. "Wikis are just a better way of sharing information than the default mechanism most corporations use, which is e-mail," says AMR's Murphy.

Simplicity That Isn't So Simple

But the very openness and ease of access that make wikis so attractive for some applications can be a handicap for others. With users numbering in the hundreds of thousands, Wikipedia suffered a black eye recently after well-publicized reports that congressional staff members had deliberately mangled the biographies of rival politicians. And the Los Angeles Times was embarrassed last year when it launched a public wiki, only to shut it down a few months later because of rampant vandalism.

Dave Taylor, an Internet consultant, author and longtime wiki user, adds wryly, "Communism also looks really cool in an optimal universe. Wikis are great if you assume everyone wants to make everything better, but it's awfully hard to keep emotions and politics out of it."

The Human Element
Social networking tools increase in value as more people use them, but persuading colleagues to get on board can be a major challenge. The user interface, unfamiliarity with the technology and user resistance are the biggest obstacles.

"Often people are very excited about the wiki for a couple of weeks, and then interest just kind of dries up," says Dave Taylor, an Internet consultant and longtime wiki user.

Experts offer a few basics for making wikis work:

Identify process pain points. Any project or process that is now managed largely by e-mail is likely to be a good candidate for a wiki. "Find areas where managers have a stake in improving collaboration. Let them apply technology from the bottom up," recommends Sam Aparicio, vice president of products and strategy at Angel.com, a call center management company in McLean, Va.

Start with a technical group. Programmers and engineers like to experiment and have significant project management challenges to solve, so they're great candidates to become early adopters.

Appoint "gardeners." Because many people are allowed to edit a wiki, data quality can become a problem. Identify a core group of administrators -- or "gardeners," in wiki terms -- who make sure information is accurate and up to date.

Think visually. The concept of a wiki is a lot easier to understand once you've seen one, and the Wikipedia site is a great example. "When people don't know what we're trying to do, I send them to Wikipedia," says Kim Lesinski, a vice president at Dickson Allan's Business & Technology Consulting Services. You can also set up a basic test wiki at any one of several low-cost hosting services such as Wikispaces.com.

Choose the right tool. There are hundreds of wiki options, and each has strengths and weaknesses. Prowl online forums for guidance. Nearly all open source wikis have active user communities that are easily accessible online and happy to give advice.

If you do it right, a wiki can become a surprisingly indispensable asset. At Ingenta, a U.K.-based aggregator of academic content, every employee has a homepage on the company wiki. If the tool disappeared, "it would cause quite an upheaval," says Leigh Dodds, manager of engineering. "It's an important resource that we're using daily."

--P.G.

Users say the concept of the perfect wiki -- one in which anyone can edit anything -- doesn't work behind the corporate firewall. You need to put an approval system in place so that changes to content are filtered through a small group of administrators. Wikis also aren't appropriate for projects that require detailed reporting or complex workflow. Content management systems and sophisticated groupware like Lotus Notes and SharePoint still have their place at the high end of the market.

Yet for basic collaboration, wikis are proving to be an attractive new option. For example, Cochlear Ltd., a $355-million medical device maker based in Sydney, uses a wiki from Atlassian to post information about new and updated software for its implantable hearing devices. A worldwide network of employees and distributors monitor the wiki.

The capability has been a godsend for customers who don't want to wait for documents to be packaged and formalized for commercial release, says Victor Rodrigues, audiological software manager and de facto CIO of the company's R&D group. E-mail was clumsy and unreliable and didn't always support the large attachments that the company needs to transmit. "It has saved many man-hours of work by optimizing the process of software delivery and information sharing prior to a launch," Rodrigues says. Roughly 150 employees and distributors regularly use the wiki.

Ingenta, a 100-person online content distributor of academic materials based in the U.K., is using the JSPWiki open source tool throughout the company for documentation and online brainstorming about new ideas. The company encouraged employee buy-in by giving everyone a personal homepage. "Most every group in the company is using it now," says Leigh Dodds, manager of engineering. "We have people focused on creating content rather than learning new tools."

Telenor, a $3-billion Oslo, Norway-based telecommunications firm, replaced a commercial document management system with a simpler wiki to publish more than 600 million bytes of technical documentation, says Paul-Rene Jorgensen, a senior consultant at the company. The 200-plus regular users don't e-mail files anymore; they download them from the Confluence wiki. Information is always current, and the central information store is more efficient than e-mail. "When someone needs a document, we just send them to a page in Confluence," he says.

Experts caution, however, that wikis aren't a tool for every collaborative project. Few wikis support offline editing, a handy feature for travelers and others who can't always connect to the Internet. Users of Lotus Notes, for example, take offline use for granted. And most wikis support only basic text formatting, which limits their application for complex functions like workflow management.

Nontechnical users may also be put off by the arcane syntax of wikis. There is no standard language for formatting text, and the basic HTML commands that many users know don't work in many wikis. For example, the command to create bold text in the popular TikiWiki is a double underscore. On Wikipedia, it's two single quotes. And in HTML, it's < b >.

Of the roughly 300 open source wikis, each has different quirks and peculiarities, so choosing a wiki engine can be daunting. Experts say it's a good idea to use open source wikis for small projects but to upgrade to commercial products for mission-critical applications. Commercial products are generally easier to use and have more powerful security, workflow and formatting features.

The bigger barriers, however, are social ones. (For more on overcoming user resistance, see "The Human Element".) In their purest form, wikis let anyone overwrite and update information posted by anyone else.

But in most business settings, such universal access isn't practical, so corporate users often create a class of administrators to track or approve changes. Users also say it's important to have policies that specify when it's appropriate to change information and what can and can't be posted on a wiki. Still, there can be political battles over who can approve changes.

Show Me the Benefits

At Angel.com, a McLean, Va., provider of call center services, three wiki administrators oversee the Socialtext wiki, and about 15 others are authorized to post content. Everyone else has read-only access. The key to adoption? "Find areas of the business where managers have a stake in improving collaboration, and let them start using the technology from the bottom up," says Sam Aparicio, vice president of products and strategy at the company.

While sometimes difficult to measure, the payoff can be substantial. Socialtext has enabled Angel.com to shave weeks off development and engineering cycles because all documentation is now centrally available. The company's sales, services, operations and marketing organizations have also adopted the wiki for collaborative publishing and lead-tracking activities. The cost to Angel.com: about $2,000 a year.

Monitor Group's Brea advises IT organizations to get users over the learning curve by developing or buying templates that make it easy to enter information. "I think you'll see structured wikis emerge that are a corporate version of Mad Libs," he says. "They'll let people paint documents by numbers."

Dickson Allan's Business & Technology Consulting Services got user buy-in by applying a wiki from JotSpot Inc. to the thorny problem of tracking sales leads generated by a widely dispersed salesforce. Trying to keep the database current by e-mailing spreadsheets among the department leaders was overwhelming, says Kim Lesinski, a vice president and practice director at the $110-million consultancy.

Once the process was moved to the wiki, quality and turnaround time improved. Dickson Allan has gained acceptance by applying the wiki to tasks that address the information needs of the firm's 125-person field force. "We've had no issues with people learning to use the tool," she adds.

At L.A.'s ACC, Richmond sees a long list of potential future applications. Collaborative writing projects and grant proposals are natural tasks for a wiki. He now posts all his written materials for a video course he teaches on an open source wiki. When the class is done, the materials will become an electronic textbook. His colleagues at ACC are gradually becoming believers. "People just need to see examples," he says. "Once they see it, they get it."

Paul Gillin is an independent marketing consultant and founding editor in chief of TechTarget. His website is www.gillin.com.

This was first published in May 2006
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