Learning to Work with Wikis
Posted by: Rob Hof on September 21, 2005
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.