Business Case Uses for Enterprise Wikis

Many Web 2.0 technologies have been in use for several years now.  However, in most circles they are still solidly in the buzzword phase.  Especially for people outside of the web community and the wider technology circle, there is very little knowledge of what these tools are or what they are used for.  One of the foremost tasks in extending the reach of Web 2.0 in the workplace is demonstrating concrete ways in which the technologies can bring real benefit to an office, project, or mission.

This material seeks to both lay out general categories of uses and summarize specific business cases as examples.

There are two general categories of possible uses for workplace wikis:

  • Online Collaboration: Using the wiki to bring people’s contributions together and construct material.
  • Knowledge Bases: Using the wiki to catalog and share the knowledge that people in the workplace have built up.

Online Collaboration

These types of business cases revolve around using the wiki to bring people’s contributions to a collective project together.  By using the wiki a team is able to quickly and efficiently bring their shared knowledge together to complete a project and generate documents.  For example:

Collaborative Document Generation:

A wiki is an excellent tool to allow a distributed group of people to create documents collaboratively in one central location rather than the traditional method of relaying Word documents through email.  To use a wiki in this manner the group places their content directly into wiki pages and adds, edits, and revises each others content on the fly through the wiki interface.  A key benefit is that it removes two tools that are not well suited for distributed document creation: Microsoft Word and email, with one that is: a wiki.

There are many benefits for a team of people using a wiki to create documents:

  • There is one central location for the material
  • All changes and additions are immediately seen by the entire team
  • All changes and additions are tracked, a full history is kept, and changes can be easily rolled back
  • The wiki records who was responsible for each change or addition
  • The wiki provides a separate but connected space for team members to discuss the content without blending that discussion into the document itself.
  • All of this happens in real time.  As soon as a change is made it is visible on the wiki.

Word processors like Microsoft Word and Wordperfect were not created or designed for building documents as a team.  They are designed for one person to create a document while sitting at a desk. Trying to adapt these tools for use in collaboration leads to the need for one person to have to fight with Word’s “Track Changes” and “Comments” features to compile, edit and bring the final document together.

While email will continue to be an important part of an office’s work flow, it is best suited for notification or one on one communication.  Moving collaboration frominboxes to wikis offers many advantages.

  • Email is not real time.  An email could be sent by one team member and then sit in someone else’s inbox for days.  The entire team is then forced to wait while this “slowest link” processes the email and responds to it.  Material that is in a wiki is always available for editing.
  • Collaboration over email is fractured into many small pieces and scattered to many different inboxes. A wiki keeps everything organized in one place.
  • When it comes time to put things together there wind up being many versions of the final product scattered through inboxes.  Rather than examining the content and checking timestamps a wiki keeps the freshest version of material on top.
  • Collaborating in one central place ensures that no one is ever left out of the email loop.  If someone makes a change or initiates some discussion in the wiki every team member will be sure to see it.
  • One of the strongest arguments for this type of use is that it works to reduce the the amount of email that comes into a worker’s inbox by moving some of the traffic to a moreefficient technology.

Other examples of online collaboration include:

  • Agenda Construction: An agenda for a specific meeting is posted on a wiki and participants are able to complete the schedule and discuss the contents and organization of the material.
  • Meeting Support: A team can plan for an upcoming meeting by working out the schedule and assembling the contents within a wiki.
  • Brainstorming: When beginning a project a team can use the flexible structure of a wiki to flush out ideas and add their own items and thoughts.  They can then begin to collaboratively reorganize the contents into a usable form.

Knowledge Bases:

This category includes a very wide variety of wiki business case uses.  At its most simple level, these uses provide a place for people to write down things that they know which might be useful to others.  The advantage of using a wiki for this basic task is that the wiki is lightweight, flexible, and allows the knowledge that people share to be supplemented and edited by others.  Experience teaches us that to successfully use a wiki for this purpose is not as simple as opening it up for “things people know.” Rather, contributions need to be focused into meaningful subjects.

Below are some examples of specific knowledge base business uses for your office wiki:

Meeting Tracker

  • Record the minutes of an office meeting and provide details about what was discussed
  • Attach documents that were handed out
  • List web site links that were referred to
  • Keep a top level index of all the meetings contained in the wiki


  • Used to record the processes of tasks that are preformed often
  • Create a checklist for those tasks so steps aren’t never forgotten and the job is done correctly each time
  • Allows specialized knowledge to be spread through your office:  Often there is one person who commonly handles a specific task, for example: putting out a newsletter, updating a certain web page, or submitting purchase requisitions.  If that person is unavailable then the task can’t be accomplished. If the person leaves the organization then someone else in the office has to take time to rediscover and relearn the entire process.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Used to flush out and share specialized information that certain members of the office have built up
  • Lists of common questions that people are asked by their coworkers as they do their jobs
  • Lists of common questions that workers notice themselves asking others can be placed in the wiki with a request for someone to jot down the correct answer

Staff Directories

  • One of the most commonly visited area’s of your office’s intranet space is also one that is most often in need of updating
  • Eliminate web requests that consist of simple changes in contact information as people can keep their own information up to date themselves
  • Supplement the typical phone number / office location / email address directory with other personalized information. Each staff member can place information about themselves that might be useful to others such as their areas of expertise, offices they have worked at in the past, other languages spoken, alternate workplace information, etc

Office Travel Guide

  • Details about common destinations that people in your office travel to
  • Eliminate time and effort spent digging around the Yellow Pages and Google before each trip
  • List of hotels that charge within allotted per diem
  • Tips for getting around town once at the destination
  • Information about things to do during down time

Conference and Seminar Summaries

  • Conferences are often a wealth of information and opportunities to learn about many ways to improve work done in the office.  Unfortunately not everyone is able to attend any particular conference.
  • Explain and summarize presentations
  • Attach materials obtained at the conference
  • Link to web sites of presenters

Each of these business cases is a variation on a central theme: flushing out the knowledge that the members of your office have built up in the course of doing their daily jobs and getting it written down in one central location.  Once that knowledge is written down it can be both preserved and easily shared.

Getting an office’s knowledge written down in a tangible form is becoming a more important task in the modern workplace.  The information that is recorded in these knowledge bases is often the type of information that is shared from worker to worker in casual conversations over cubical walls, in the hallway, or at the water cooler.  As the modern office begins to adopt telecommuting, remote collaboration, and the like these water cooler conversations are happening less frequently.  To replace them and keep an office functioning as a cohesive unit rather than a collection of individuals it will have to embark on some formal way of getting its collective knowledge written down and accessible to all its parts.

Why Use a Wiki?

This category of uses is the very reason that the wiki was originally created.  Ward Cunningham, who was an engineer at Tektronix at the time , noticed that his company had a large amount of very smart people spread out in many different areas.  He thought that if he could create a way to catalog the knowledge that people in different areas of the company had, the whole company would be able to benefit from sharing each other’s experiences.  Coworkers would be able to see which people had experience with a specific subject and what they had learned.  This way people could learn from challenges that their coworkers had already overcome rather than re-solving problems every time they came up.  To tackle this task he created what he called “the simplest online database that could possibly work”: the wiki.

Choosing a wiki for this process of writing down and sharing knowledge has many benefits over other technologies or a simple collection of Word documents:

  • The information is all in one central location that everyone can learn how to access.
  • All of the information contained in the wiki is search-able.
  • The layout becomes organized by the people that use it.  Since it is the office’s knowledge, it makes sense that the office itself be able to organize what goes into it and adapt to changing contents and needs.
  • A wiki “tends to always be the right size.”  The structure of wikis aren’t completely preplanned by the wiki managers.  They allow a simple way for the creation of a new page or section, and any time a user feels like a new page should be added it is done.  Likewise if no one that is using the wiki feels like a section is needed, it can be eliminated or simply not created.
  • New knowledge can be submitted on the fly and is not tied to development life cycles.  Rather than waiting for someone to produce a white-paper or wait for a vendor to produce a new set of documentation, users can produce or document knowledge as it is needed in real time.

Getting Knowledge Bases to Work

Getting these wikis to work is a difficult endeavor.  Creating knowledge bases is not a new idea, and there are far fewer success stories than failures or mediocre endeavors.

In addition to getting people in the office to learn to use a new technology, you are probably asking them to do something that they don’t currently do in their daily routine: collaborate on things that they don’t necessarily need to collaborate on. People aren’t used to stopping and documenting their thought processes or taking the time to type out the things they know about their job that they take for granted. This is asking them to stop their work flow and analyze it from above.

These types of wikis are different than using a wiki to collaborate on a project or build documents as a team.  In those examples the participants would have had to use some type of collaborative tools to get the job done, even if it was simply email and Microsoft Word.  Asking them to use a wiki is simply asking them to change the tools that they use.  Asking them to create a knowledge base is asking them to do something completely new, and asking them to do a whole new category of work that they would have not otherwise done that day.

It is extremely common for people to not participate in this kind of activity when left up to their own devices.  Usually communities such as these have a small number of people that create the lion’s share of the contributions. Getting people involved takes a commitment from the wiki manager and a large amount of planning, support, and marketing.

Posted in Enterprise 2.0, Geekery, Web 2.0

The Next Generation of User Centric Government Web Sites

Web 1.0 was static data, pages upon pages of data that a user searched through to find information.  Web 2.0 brought a vast improvement by enabling user generated content.  Users could provide feedback to the information that was provided and were enabled to collaborate amongst themselves.

The next generation of the web will consist of applications that make decisions about what information to provide based on their analysis of the user and of conditions of that could effect what the user wants to see.  It will be a Priceline .com that discovers your flight has been delayed and sends alternate flight information to your Blackberry without you asking.  These applications will be proactive in addressing their user’s needs.

User Centric Web Sites

In order to better serve the public, government web sites need to find ways to do several things:

  • Offer contextual data to users: Because the scope and mission of government agencies are so large, only small portions of the data that they have available are useful or relevant to the average user that arrives at their web site.  Unless the user is a researcher or a member of a regulated community, much of the information on government web sites is not relevant or remotely interesting to the user.  Successful web sites will find ways to drill through the mounds of data and serve up subsets that are relevant to the user’s interest, geographic location, etc.
  • Organize the data as it is relevant to the user, not as it is relevant to the organization.  Many if not most sites are structured in the same way that the bureaucracy of the particular agency is.  Information is relegated to the particular office that was responsible for producing it and then stove-piped within that corner of the website. Without knowledge of the bureaucracy’s structure, the user can not possibly hope to locate the information.
  • Something beyond searching by text has to be offered.  Requiring that a user use a search box puts the onus of making the web site meaningful on the user.  While good search is necessary, sites should aim to be usable at face value.
  • Don’t expect users to know what is available at the site. The average citizen probably has very little idea of the breadth and depth of information that each agency contains.  A smart site would find ways to present its information to the user, rather than having it buried in deep levels of the site.

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Posted in .gov 2.0, Web 2.0

Construction Projects and Building Successful Wikis

A good wiki is hard to find, most are full of much more fail than knowledge.  Google around a bit and you will find countless numbers of wikis that started full of potential, but wound up with few contributors and only a smattering of content.  There are many reasons for these blank slates, but a  primary one is misuse or at least a misunderstanding of what wikis on the modern web tend to do well.

When Ward Cunningham built the first wiki the goal was to create a web (Hypercard) application that allowed people to write their content in the same place that it was viewed.  Click a button, type some text, behold your wondrous creation.  These days however, with all of the tools that are available to allow the easy creation of content, a wiki will rarely be the best tool for that job.  That’s why people build CMS’s.

Lets be clear, there are plenty of sites out there that use wiki software to host their content.  A site built by one or a few people that happens to  be built on Mediawiki is not the plate of failure I am talking about.  It is the site that sets out to be an actual distributed collaboration project in the model of Wikipedia and winds up consisting of three pages of editorial about HAM radio.

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Posted in Geekery, Web 2.0, Wikis

Maverick or McBush?

So like the 60 million other blogs created every thirty seconds I set out with the intention of being an avid poster.  I found that it is hard to keep the outpouring of my knowledge and opinions to only one site, what with all the blog commenting, iReporting, YouTubing, microblogging, and femtoblogging.  I love the technology and consider the turn toward mainstream user generated content a good thing. However, I think there is an ever increasing possibility that future historians will not reference the Maya Angelous and Carl Sagans of our time, but rather will dredge up quotes from Legolas_Dude_34 ranting about a city ordinance on his local LARPing message board.

I made a small website as a project in order to get some practice with the technologies that I don’t get to use in my day gig.  Here lies Maverick or McBuch: The McCain Voting Record in the 110th Congress.  I had settled on some of the web techniques I wanted to work with and hunted for a subject.  Since you can’t watch Maury in peace these days without election news interrupting I embraced the horror.  I consider myself an above average follower of this election cycle, and participate as an Obama campaign volunteer in the DC area.  I was interested in – and terrified by – the often repeated charge that McCain has turned in to a George Bush clone.  I sorted through many of the key votes of the 110th Congress and categorized them.

Maverick Screen

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Posted in Technology, Web 2.0

Web 2.0 and the Transparency of Process

Federal government and large enterprise communication managers alike are pulling their hair out.  One of the most sensible strategies for communicating to an audience, whether they be customers or constituents, is to speak where they are listening.  With Web 2.0 sites now clearly out of the “quirky trend” phase and moving into mainstream adoption it is becoming important for all serious communicators to establish a presence in places like YouTube, the bloggosphere, iTunes, etc etc.  More and more people are using the sites like this as primary sources of information.  No one feels like they have the first clue how to both use these sites to reach their growing audience and also follow the best practice methods that are enforced upon federal websites.

One of the things that gives federal government content managers the biggest migraines when planning for using this new media is that on 3rd party sites they do not control the whole page.  Is it really appropriate for a federal agency to disseminate information in a YouTube video when the rest of the page is going to have god knows what on it?
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Posted in .gov 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Web 2.0