SMB simplicity -- Wikis for workflow

When it comes to workflow and project management software, why pay for complexity you don't need? Consider a wiki, the simple software tool that's revolutionizing group productivity.

What's a wiki? If you've ever used the website Wikipedia, now one of the largest reference sources on the Internet, you've got a taste for what wikis can do.

Wikipedia, which is based on the open source MediaWiki engine, is handling hundreds of thousands of users and almost 4 million articles. But wikis don't have to be big. In fact, they're best used by groups of just a few users.

A wiki lets people create and edit documents collaboratively. Anyone can add to or change any document, and all changes are logged to a history database. That makes it easy to track contributions and undo changes. It's sort of an HTML whiteboard, where anyone can grab a marker and scribble for the benefit of the whole class. Updates can be distributed to project members via email or Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds. Most wikis also support attachments.

Wikis have been around for a decade, but they've really taken off in the last two years. More than 300 open source wikis are available (here's a list of five vendors that sell commercial wiki software: JotSpot Inc., Socialtext Inc., Atlassian Software Systems Pty Ltd., Wetpaint.com Inc. and Wikia Inc.). IBM and Microsoft are also planning to add wiki functionality to their groupware products.

Do your homework

SMBs should take a look at wikis before wading through the confusing and expensive market of workflow software. Wikis pick up where email leaves off. Once a project advances beyond four or five members, email becomes a complicated and error-prone way to share information. Messages get deleted or are never read, and it's almost impossible to ensure that everyone is working with the most current information.

That's when most companies start looking at workflow engines. But most workflow applications are basically routing information to the right people and tracking their changes and contributions to a project. I'll bet that the majority of tasks for which users now turn to workflow products can be handled much more simply with a wiki.

That's the problem that confronted the business and technology consulting group at Dickson Allan in Troy, Mich. The company's leadership team met weekly via conference call to talk about new business opportunities. One person took notes and entered the information into a spreadsheet, which was sent around to all the managers for corrections. By the time the whole cycle was finished, it was often time for the next weekly meeting.

Dickson Allan ditched the spreadsheet in favor of a JotSpot wiki. Now new business information is up to date from the start. And any authorized user -- not just people on the routing list -- can see the latest updates. Clients are starting to ask about adopting the software for their own business needs, said Kim Lesinski, a vice president at the company.

Dan Bricklin, inventor of the electronic spreadsheet and president of Software Garden Inc. in Newton Mass., noted that a wiki is a basic, customizable tool, and simple tools usually beat overengineered solutions in the market. "People figure out how to use tools the way they want to use them," he said.

Bricklin is developing a wiki-based spreadsheet called wikiCalc. The software will let people build complex financial models collaboratively. Remember the last time you assembled a budget or sales forecast with a team of people? How much simpler would that have been if everyone had been able to work on the same spreadsheet?

Open source wiki options

Open source wikis are free but may have limited functionality. Wikis don't all use the same formatting commands, so look at the documentation and review the support forums before you make a decision. Commercial products add features like advanced security, directory integration and advanced formatting. And they're cheap. Socialtext, for example, charges $95 per month for 19 users, and per-user pricing goes down from there. Most commercial products can be accessed over the Internet for a fee or licensed for on-premise use. You can test a wiki for free at the following sites:

Wikis aren't a panacea, of course. For large projects involving extensive supporting documentation or complex workflow diagrams, a commercial system is probably still best. You probably don't want to implement a "pure" wiki where anyone can edit anything. Users say it's best to designate a small number of people to approve new information for posting.

Commercial software vendors would love to sell you an expensive, function-rich workflow solution that's packed with features you'll never use. That's good for their profit margins. Wikis are a simple solution to simple problems. And isn't simple usually better?

Paul Gillin is a technology writer and consultant and former editor-in-chief of TechTarget. His website is www.gillin.com.

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