Business Use of wiki

Wiki is open source information. That is my definition. When applied to the business world, I say wiki is open source documentation. Wiki is invented at the Portland Pattern Repository, a website and database for software design patterns. You can read its full history there. In general wiki is a web site for simple, open and unrestricted collaboration. One of the main characteristics of a Wiki is that there is no page ownership. Anyone can change anything, including deleting things. My first encounter with wiki was at the Zope site. I did not like it. It was confusing, the quality of the content was not always good. Sometime in October 2002, my sysAdmin showed me that he was using a Python wiki clone, MoinMoin, for his own documentation. MoinMoin was written in Python, my favorite scripting and text manipulation language. Because it is web based, it is always there and it makes writing documentation simple. I played with it for a little bit, and decided to roll it out for the entire company to see if it will help us document our knowledge.

A side note, two technology that I love, Python and Wiki, were both introduced to me via Unix SysAdmins. Python was introduced to me many years ago by another SysAdmin that was working with me. What does this mean? Unix Sys Admin have good taste? and/or Unix SysAdmin has too much time to surf the web and find interesting stuff? (Sorry Ben).

Enviornment Before

First, some background: We currently have two internal web sites. One was maintained mostly by our internal web master. Mostly because we don't have a full time web master anymore. The content has slowly gone out of date. The content was for the general corporation.

The other site is a simple user directoried web site on a Apache server. Each person has their own directories. There are reasonable content on these sites, and the information is almost all technical, maintained by developers themselves. The problem is that you have to either edit HTML directly on Linux, or use a PC tool and manage with FTP. Even our developer finds that a little tedious. Therefore there is little incentive to maintain the data on that site. And besides one or two brave and technically savy product manager, there are little business level content on that site.

Wiki deployment I deploy a wiki site (powered by MoinMoin) in our Boston office. This office house primarily developers and product development people. At the beginning a few of the techies jumped on it, of course. First interesting observation -- some of the HTML savy developers started to try to format their pages nicely -- which is hard to do with the limited MoinMoin text mark up language. Hence the first advantage of using a wiki instead of a full scale CMS driven website. Once the writers decided that they cannot spend too much time on making things look good,they started to spend time on the actual content.

Looking at just the techie group first, there are two types of people up to the pre-wiki time. Those who like to document their work somewhere (usually on our old internal website), and those who do not want to but do so reluctantly, and those who just don't want to write anything. The group that were writers took to the wiki quickly. The non-writer group remains off line. The relunctant writers are the one that changed most. They started to create more pages.

As times go by the non writers started to contribute also. Part of this is social and process pressure. Since more discussions and documentations are on the wiki now, sometimes one do not have a choice but to participate. It gets really interesting when ''wiki'' becomes a word in our normal business discussion.

Technical Hurdle At least with MoinMoin, the wiki that we use, there are some technical difficulties that prevent even the technical people from using it effectively. The number one problem is attachment or file sharing. Often, part of the information shared is in the form of a PDF or a spreadsheet. Unfortunately MoinMoin's way of attaching files and referencing them is difficult.

Social Impact First, "wiki" becomes a commonly used term in meetings. "It's on the wiki, go read it", or "please put it up on the wiki", or "it's NOT on the wiki !" are the common phrase.

Some Links