Wikis and blogs transforming workflow

A year ago they were little more than geeky playthings. Now wikis and blogs are the hottest tools in workflow and productivity management.

Why e-mail when you can wiki?

Wikis, as well as the more established blog, are experiencing the same kind of grass-roots adoption within businesses that the Internet and e-mail did when they first emerged on the scene.

Where e-mail and enterprise content management systems fall short, enterprise blogs and wikis shine as indispensable communication tools. Experts say CIOs should be looking at these Web-based tools not as renegade applications but as lightweight liberators that boost productivity throughout an organization.

Paul Wormeli, executive director of the Ashburn, Va.-based Integrated Justice Information System (IJIS) Institute, has deployed blog technology inside his organization and says blogs speed up collaboration and reduce e-mail.

"With e-mail, if you want people to comment on a white paper, you send it out and get 20 people to look at it," Wormeli said. "A lot of them come back with the same [correction of a] misspelled word or a comment."

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A blog, or weblog, is essentially an online diary. In the business environment, a blog allows knowledge workers to share information with other employees, who in turn can provide feedback.

Wiki is a term derived from the Hawaiian word wikiwiki, which means "fast." A wiki is similar to a blog, but it allows users to both create and edit each other's content in a searchable database.

E-mail has proven itself to be an indispensable form of communication, but it has limits as a collaborative tool, experts agree. Enterprise content management systems are important for codifying and organizing important corporate data, but they can be expensive and inflexible. Blogs and wikis can fill in the collaborative gap.

Greg Lloyd, president and founder of Traction Software Inc., a Providence, R.I.-based enterprise blog vendor, said the point-to-point nature of e-mail limits its use as a collaborative tool. The CC and BCC fields in e-mail are "dangerous," he said. Often the wrong person gets the message. And many people ignore a message with a wide distribution.

"Or you leave off the one person who might have a key insight to move you along," Lloyd said. "And every person who sees an e-mail cluttering up his inbox makes the independent and generally wrong decision about who to forward that e-mail to."

In theory, a blog or wiki can be seen by everyone, as are the reader responses and edits. No one is left out of the loop.

Enterprise content management systems are important for maintaining strict controls over a library of sensitive information, but they are sometimes too formal for use as a collaborative tool.

"A high-end content management system is essentially a scalable library and it can have very precise and complex check-in and check-out release configuration management rules," Lloyd said. "If you're [General Motors], you have hundreds and thousands of CAD files that you have to keep straight in order to put a car together... You want strict controls over who can put in changes to specs that go out to parts suppliers."

Blogs and wikis "capture the working communication" that surrounds content management systems, he said. "It has to do with individuals and product teams, making what people do visible to others in the company," Lloyd said.

Companies such as Traction and Socialtext in Palo Alto, Calif., make enterprise versions of wiki and blog software that include security controls, archiving and identity management tools. Many companies with grass-roots adoption of wikis and blogs use open source versions of the technology, but CIOs may prefer deploying tools developed specifically for the enterprise.

The IJIS Insitute's Wormeli has deployed Traction's enterprise blog technology inside his organization. The IJIS Institute is a nonprofit that applies the expertise of the IT industry to help improve information sharing among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. It has a small full-time staff, but leverages more than 450 members from industry and law enforcement to publish articles and white papers about information sharing.

Unlike traditional e-mail communication, products such as Traction allow users to edit in real time. "Once a person does it you don't do it again," Wormeli said. "It saves re-working. It puts it up there for all people to see it. You can have a conference call and have everyone looking at the document and updating it in real time."

Wormeli said he implemented an internal enterprise blog to speed collaboration among IJIS members. White paper drafts are published internally as blogs and members are able to make comments and suggest corrections. Once he has a final draft of a publication, Wormeli clicks a button and the white paper is released to the public on IJIS's Web site.

Wikis and blogs are generally lightweight applications that are easy to deploy, according to Jim Murphy, research director at AMR Research Inc. in Boston. "They can be deployed on existing hardware and existing Web services without additional investments," he said.

Murphy said wikis and blogs are a good way to capture information that might otherwise have no other easily accessible place to be. In IT departments wikis could help track change management. Instead of commenting within software code to explain why changes are made, programmers can explain the changes in a wiki.

"You really don't want all that information in the code," Murphy said. "Wikis are a good way to manage that documentation."

Murphy said a lot of companies are deploying blogs and wikis to customer service centers, where customer service representatives build knowledge bases that helps them manage exceptions with a searchable and contextual database.

"You're fostering greater transparency and a culture of working openly," said Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext. "It helps break down false silos and provide more shared knowledge that people can build on. With a wiki, you're sharing control over a resource that anyone can edit. That shared control over time actually fosters trust. That's one of the intangibles of value inside the enterprise. But imagine what it might mean between trading partners."

Sam Aparicio, vice president of products and strategy at McLean, Va.-based Angel.com, a provider of IVR and call center technology, first hosted an open source wiki on his desktop for his company's engineers.

Aparicio, who describes himself as his small company's de facto CIO, said he thought other units of Angel.com might benefit from using wikis, "but we also felt that the open source wiki was too geeky for others in the company to use." He deployed Socialtext's wiki so it could be accessible to nontechnical employees.

Now his sales department uses a wiki to track leads. Marketing uses it to produce material for marketing campaigns. Product management uses it to write competitive intelligence briefs and specification documents. "We also use it to collaborate with our partners, things they need to know," Aparicio said.

"This is not something that is technology-centric, but culture-centric," Aparicio said. "I think wikis represent a paradigm shift in terms of openness in the workplace. It is to the benefit of the CIO to understand that his job is to enable knowledge workers to do more empowering work. The average American company that is suffering in collaboration areas -- this is going to improve the situation."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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