Technology

Corporate Wikis Go Viral


Two European companies show how the collaborative practice spreads from early adopters of wikis at work to become mainstream business tools

About two years ago, a handful of tech-savvy employees at two very different European companies began dabbling in the use of wikis—collaborative tools that let you build Web pages that allow users to edit documents, share ideas, or monitor the status of a project. Within months, the skunkworks had spawned so many Wiki pages that each company decided to launch an official company wiki.

The striking thing is, the rapid spread of wikis at both companies—Finnish handset-maker Nokia (NOK) and London- and Frankfurt-based investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort—was a grassroots phenomenon. And while the experience of both companies suggests wikis may not be for everyone, their versatility and ease of use has rapidly made them an essential corporate tool.

In late 2004, when wikis were more buzz than proven tech tool, two small groups within Nokia's Research Center in Helsinki created their own wikis—one to collaborate on solving specific product-design problems, the other to explore alternatives to e-mail and collaborative software.

Early Confusion

Today, Nokia estimates at least 20% of its 68,000 employees use wiki pages to update schedules and project status, trade ideas, edit files, and so on. "It's a reversal of the normal way things are done," says Stephen Johnston, senior manager for corporate strategy at Nokia, who helped pioneer the technology. Where Nokia once bought outside software to help foster collaboration, now "some of the most interesting stuff is emerging from within the company itself," says Johnston.

It's a similar tale at Dresdner Kleinwort. A few pioneers in the IT department at its London office sent a program called Socialtext to several groups to see how it might be used to facilitate different IT tasks. The wiki program spread so quickly that Dresdner Kleinwort decided to launch its own corporate wiki. By October, 2006, the bank's 5,000 employees had created more than 6,000 individual pages and logged about 100,000 hits on the company's official wiki.

The experience of Nokia and Dresdner Kleinwort offer insight into how to nurture the use of a radically new technology to change the way organizations work. Clearly, not everyone recognizes the value of wikis right way. The initial efforts at Dresdner, for example, confused employees and had to be refined to make the technology easier to use. More important than tweaking the technology was a simple edict from one of the proponents: Don't send e-mails, use the wiki. Gradually, employees embraced the use of the wiki, seeing how it increased collaboration and reduced time-consuming e-mail traffic.

Putting Philosophy into Practice

And that's really all it takes for the technology to spread. Once one group became committed wiki users, both companies say, the trend inevitably spread. In March, 2006, the Dresdner Kleinwort wiki had 20,000 monthly hits. By October, that number had quintupled, often because one unit convinced another to start using wikis.

At Nokia, Johnston says, different business groups within the company frequently collaborate, so as soon as one team began using wikis, the others followed suit. "Pretty soon, it started to go viral," he says.

The wikis caught on so quickly with Johnston and other research & development types because they offer more than just a new way of handling old tasks. Johnston says it was a watershed moment to find a tool that orchestrates a virtual free-flowing jam session of ideas across different groups and units within the company—something that's crucial for an organization that thrives on out-of-the-box thinking.

"Wikis are a very tangible expression of our open way of working," Johnston says. "Now, we can not only talk about openness, we have a tool that is at its core based on collaboration." Once his colleagues recognized that, Johnston says, wikis began popping up everywhere.

Increased Productivity

At Dresdner Kleinwort's London office, a technological innovation is only as valuable as its ability to save time—and hence, money. Alex Thill, head of e-commerce at the bank, says he initially viewed wikis as just another "toy." But after testing them and realizing their time-saving potential, Thill and his colleagues soon become "evangelists" and led the charge to spread them.

Thill's team of 52, which designs and maintains Web sites for many of the bank's divisions, is split between Frankfurt and London, and often seeks input from the Tokyo and New York offices. Over the past two years, he has nudged his dispersed colleagues to contribute changes and ideas directly on the Dresdner Kleinwort wiki, rather than via a raft of e-mails, often loaded with Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. "It means we're all on the same platform," Thill says, "so it doesn't matter where you are, as long as you're connected and you're contributing."

Thill says using the wiki, along with blogs and instant messaging, has cut down his e-mail use by at least 75%, and his colleagues have reported similar results. Now, he only needs to go a single wiki page to view all the key metrics for 80 Web sites monitored by his department. Whereas sifting and sorting that data from 80 sources could otherwise take weeks, he says, through the wiki, each user only needs "about 30 seconds" to plug in his or her data and make it immediately available to the whole team, all of whom are promptly notified by instant message or e-mail.

If the experience at Dresdner Kleinwort and Nokia is any indication, wikis could soon spread throughout much of the corporate world.

Carlin is a reporter in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau.

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