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.
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.
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:
- 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
- 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.