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Learning to Work with Wikis


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September 21, 2005

Learning to Work with Wikis

Rob Hof

A few weeks ago, I suddenly realized I would need a better way to collaborate with BusinessWeek's other writers and editors on our Best of the Web list than simply emailing lists back and forth and trying to keep up with every little change. No time for all that rigmarole. That's when I remembered wikis, those Web sites that anybody can edit.

We tried a wiki, and it worked great--as far as we took it. But we could have done better with it. I think our experience points up how difficult it can be to collaborate effectively, even with software and services expressly designed for collaboration. Most of all, habits are hard to break. ...

Full disclosure: Last year, Socialtext had set up a demonstration wiki for BusinessWeek so I could get an idea how they worked for a story I wrote on wikis. Since it was there, I decided to use it as a onetime experiment. After all, one of the key themes of the Best of the Web package is the participatory nature of the emerging new Web sites and services, so what better way to test the theme than to use one of those very services? Just don't read anything into the fact that we used this particular wiki vs. any other. I'm sure JotSpot or Twiki or MediaWiki (the software behind Wikipedia) or any of dozens of other wiki programs and services would have worked fine--and presented the same challenges.

So anyway, the great thing about the wiki was that I could quickly set up a categorized list on which we could all make changes at will. That definitely eliminated the email merry-go-round. It also allowed us to easily add categories and sites and to leave notes explaining why we made the changes.

Although wiki software lets you revert to previous versions easily, I still felt that too many cooks might overflow the broth, so we limited the number of people who could edit the list. That was probably my main mistake. I think it ended up limiting the effectiveness of the wiki, since we didn't get a lot of participation. To be most effective, you really need all the people, from writers to production folks, to be able to work inside the wiki.

Even had we not limited the number of people involved, I think the wiki still wouldn't have sparked an instant transformation of our working style. As easy to use as it was, wikis are yet another thing to learn, and that simply takes time. And even though the wiki ended up saving us time, simply finding time to learn something new no doubt will remain a hurdle to widespread use in any organization.

Finally, at some points, we had to copy and paste the list into emails and production systems, because the wiki isn't integrated into them. Hey, it's a new world, and this kind of thing takes time, too.

All that said, I'm a certified wiki fan. Now I just have to persuade my colleagues it's a great tool they should use more often. If you've already managed to make the case in your group or company, I hope you'll share what worked for you, via the Comments below.

01:20 PM

Power of Us, Social Software, Web 2.0, Wiki, Wikipedia

Do you use Wiki for to-do list only, or do you actually write your articles there?

Posted by: avi at September 22, 2005 01:26 AM

I have worked with a few wikis/projectportals incl. Microsoft Sharepoint, E-room and Projectplace.com, Mywebdesktop.net.

I find these tools invaluable, and after having used them, I cannot imagine how you can run a project without them.

However, I agree that the largest benifits of these tools, will come only with a transformation of working style, and this is usually the hardest part to achieve.

Based on my experience these tools are most useful, when working in a small dedicated team, that trust each other. The small team makes it reasonably easy to agree how to work, and trust is a must if you want a free flow of information.

Posted by: Klas K. at September 22, 2005 04:36 AM

Avi: We don't use wikis to write stories--at least I'm not aware of anyone who does yet. Various reasons: We've standardized on Word and Quark, which have advantages in terms of marking up for editing. Wikis' open nature also would make it more difficult to lock down copy and be sure it hasn't changed, which is important both for meeting deadlines and for making sure copy is secure if there are legal issues with stories. And for now, at least, we haven't looked into the security situation with wikis--we'd have to be sure no one from outside the magazine could monkey with the copy. But wikis clearly have potential advantages in terms of collaboration, so I suspect we'll slowly work them into our story writing process at some point.

Posted by: Rob Hof at September 22, 2005 10:16 AM

Rob,

Wiki's are great collaboration tools, but inherently difficult to use for the average computer user. Getting oriented with the mere concept of being able to 'edit a webpage' is logical leap that many people have a difficult time grasping. I believe that we (in the tech industry) often take our tech knowledge for granted and expect the mainstream to accept what we believe is 'easy' or 'better.'

At Central Desktop, we've built a collaboration tool that leverages the good, communal aspects of wiki's but have tried to strip out the tech stuff that goes along with the wikis.

Wikis are cool. Wikis are neat. But wiki's aren't for the general public. I believe there is a reason why wiki's have been around for years and years and have never been adopted outside of the IT department.

http://www.centraldesktop.com

Posted by: Isaac Garcia at September 22, 2005 12:43 PM

Isaac...I think you make some good points but disagree with the idea of wikis not being for the general public. The best counterexample is Wikipedia...a "general public" wiki. It is also (arguably) the most powerful wiki presently known.

Historically, you arer right. Wikis have been a tech only phenomenom. The reason they are getting so much play now is that they are becoming much, much more easy to use. With the addition of hosted wiki solutions like JotSpot and Socialtext, as well as WYSIWYG interfaces, I'm certain that wikis will only grow in popularity over the next several years (especially if they continue to make new advances). No, wikis haven't been for the general public. They are now.

Rob...great stuff. Keep it coming.

Posted by: Ken Yarmosh at September 23, 2005 07:47 PM

Isaac...I think you make some good points but disagree with the idea of wikis not being for the general public. The best counterexample is Wikipedia...a "general public" wiki. It is also (arguably) the most powerful wiki presently known.

Historically, you arer right. Wikis have been a tech only phenomenom. The reason they are getting so much play now is that they are becoming much, much more easy to use. With the addition of hosted wiki solutions like JotSpot and Socialtext, as well as WYSIWYG interfaces, I'm certain that wikis will only grow in popularity over the next several years (especially if they continue to make new advances). No, wikis haven't been for the general public. They are now.

Rob...great stuff. Keep it coming.

Posted by: Ken Yarmosh at September 23, 2005 09:59 PM

Hi Rob, I really enjoyed the honesty and specificity of your article, as I'm currently helping design a wiki on JotSpot (www.innowiki.jot.com) as a virtual follow up to a live business networking event my firm is hosting called, "The Breakthrough Cafe." (www.ideachampions.com/breakthrough_cafe.shtml)

Our firm specializes in innovation and collaboration, yet we're finding it difficult for staff members to log in and use our "InnoWiki" before guests arrive this Friday night (Oct. 28th). Although tech savvy and creative, many of these folks are saying the editing tools, etc. of the Wiki are hard to use; they become frustrated and don't post any material, or even sign in.

As memory serves, it didn't take me too long to start attaching word docs to emails instead of faxing, especially as the temp who everyone foisted their grunt work on. I think the adoption of wiki's may come from the same "ground level forces" who are tired of mining their mail boxes to find the fifth version of a document.

Perhaps that's why I'm touting the widespead use of wiki's in terms of their project-management functionality (albeit "vanilla" when compared to tools supplied by Groove, etc.). However, what we're also championing is the community/collaborative nature of a wiki, and discovering what the united voices of multiple users will bring to the overall brand/feel of our InnoWiki. Thanks again for the great article. By the way, is Business Week going forward with wiki's for your general readership?

Posted by: John C. Havens at October 26, 2005 11:12 AM

At Central Desktop, we've built a collaboration tool that leverages the good, communal aspects of wiki's but have tried to strip out the tech stuff that goes along with the wikis.

Posted by: Denn at December 28, 2005 10:09 AM

Perhaps that's why I'm touting the widespead use of wiki's in terms of their project-management functionality (albeit "vanilla" when compared to tools supplied by Groove, etc.).

Posted by: Stan at January 14, 2006 05:47 AM


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