Primer: Enterprise Wiki

What is it?
A wiki is a Web site where content is contributed, edited and organized by its users, who can quickly create pages and links between them. Users typically have broad powers to publish content without prior approval, and to edit each other’s postings. A revision history is maintained so that the author of each change can be identified and an older version of an article can be restored, if necessary.

An enterprise wiki needs to operate a little differently from, for example, Wikipedia, the encyclopedia written and edited by Web users. The audience may be employees or business partners in an intranet or extranet powered by wiki software or customers that use the company’s products. But like any other technology, an enterprise wiki is judged by how well it cuts costs or promotes sales.

How do I control the content?
Finding a balance between openness and editorial control is the tricky part of wiki administration. Wikipedia has had to impose more controls to protect against vandalism and other abuses (such as hostile additions to the biography of President Bush). Similarly, business wikis that are open to the public may sometimes require site administrators to delete content that would damage the company’s brand or cause legal problems, such as sarcastic comments inserted into a FAQ document for a given product. The ideal case, however, is when users form a self-policing community.

Internal enterprise wikis typically don’t have to worry about vandalism, since the revision history on an article would make it obvious which employee posted the offensive material. And correcting errors isn’t usually much of a problem. At Acadian Asset Management, Antti Hietala oversees a wiki for the Boston-based firm’s equity research. “It is hard for incorrect content to survive because it gets corrected so quickly,” says Hietala, who answered questions by e-mail. “Everybody can edit the pages. New pages in particular get lots of views.”

What are the technology options?
Open-source options include MediaWiki (the software behind Wikipedia) and TWiki. Socialtext is open source but commercially supported by the company of the same name. Established vendors are also bundling support for wikis into their products. One prominent example: Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007.

Near-Time is one of several firms offering wikis as part of a bundle of collaboration applications on a remotely hosted service; last year, Google acquired a similar service called JotSpot (which it is currently retooling). Then there’s Wetpaint, a specialist in easy-to-use, hosted wikis that are open to the public, such as the fan community sites for ABC’s Lost TV program and CBS’s CSI franchise.

What makes wikis different?
The differences from previous generations of collaborative technology are not so much in technology as in design philosophy. For instance, groupware, document management and knowledge management systems typically impose more structure and administrative control. “Traditionally, the database administrator only unlocks the doors for the person who is assigned to do the work,” notes Peter Thoeny, the original author of TWiki and co-founder of the consulting firm StructuredWikis LLC. “With a wiki, you delegate the security to the end users.”

What’s the adoption rate of this technology?
Most companies don’t have a strategy for the adoption or management of wikis, says Irwin Lazar, an analyst at Nemertes Research who is conducting a study of enterprise adoption of wikis and blogs. He expects his final figures to show no more than a 10% penetration of wikis in corporate settings. Those that are up and running have typically been created at the grass-roots level, not in response to a corporate plan, he says.

Do CIOs need a wiki strategy? “Typically, they do for security and compliance reasons,” Lazar says. If wikis are set up on hosted services such as Near-Time or Wikispaces, the company may have to address concerns about proprietary data leaking out. Even if the wiki server is internal, any posting of financial data, customer information, or data that might be subject to discovery in a lawsuit could impact corporate strategies for data management and archiving.

QUIZ: Does My Companiki Need a Wiki?

Are you ready to embrace an enterprise wiki? Give yourself 1 point for each Yes answer, 0 for each No.

—Is there a community within your company (or within the audience for your product) that would benefit from greater collaboration?
—Are you willing to give up some editorial and administrative control in exchange for more active collaboration?
—Do parts of your organization already have wikis that were started at the grass-roots level? If so, is it time to pick a standard wiki technology?

3 points—Get yourself a wiki strategicki.
2 points—Explore the possibilitikis.
0-1 point—You might not be readiki.