Saturday, April 12, 2008

Why Wiki? Part 1 - A Design Definition

Photo Credit: 3D Wiki in Second Life - 3pointD.com

Almost five years ago, I introduced one of the first wikis into the corporate environment of a large healthcare company. We needed to solve a very simple, pervasive problem. The common challenge for a global team of analysts was twofold:
  1. I found something interesting, but there is no obvious place to store it in the project infrastructure or corporate taxonomy.
  2. I need to quickly find this stored information when it becomes relevant, even if I forgot about it in the interim.
The best solution at the time: a reused server under my desk loaded with SWIKI, a dead-easy Wiki server, all under the radar of corporate IT. Apart from solving the above-mentioned problems, we quickly experienced some of the exciting knowledge flow and work team dynamics that are inherently encouraged by Wiki technology.

Five years later, Wikis are the talk of the town. This same company has now purchased an enterprise Wiki that is accelerating interaction and knowledge flow between multiple R&D centers across the globe.

Magic by Definition

To really appreciate the potential impact of Wiki technology, it's important to understand what a Wiki really is. Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the Wiki, defines it as, "the simplest possible database". The name "Wiki" is a Hawaiian word meaning "quick".

A longer definition from the WikiWikiWeb is:
The ideas of "Wiki" may seem strange at first, but dive in and explore its links. "Wiki" is a composition system; it's a discussion medium; it's a repository; it's a mail system; it's a tool for collaboration. Really, we don't know quite what it is, but it's a fun way of communicating asynchronously across the network.
Although these descriptions give us clues about the characteristics of a Wiki, here's my definition, that I believe captures the design concepts that make Wikis magic:
A Wiki is a set of searchable web pages that are easy for everyone to create, edit and connect together.
Breaking down the definition:
  • Searchable. Information is only helpful if you can remember it, particularly when you need it. Good Wikis index all content and help you find information quickly by using smart search algorithms that automatically include text relevance, popularity, and date information.
  • Web Pages. Hypertext allows content to be quickly browsed and associated through convenient hyperlinks. Information is immediately accessible and can be explored in a completely flexible manner.
  • Easy. Wikis let people quickly create, edit and link web pages by simply clicking a button. Everyone can use simple text, no coding or HTML required. The Wiki takes care of the rest.
  • Everyone. Wikis are usually open, allowing anyone to create, edit, or connect. This eliminates the need for administrative bottlenecks, completely collapsing the creation/publication process. This creative and editorial freedom is accompanied by a full audit trail of every change.

More Than a Tool


There's a lot more to say about why Wikis change how organizations work together. Some companies have installed Wikis and then expressed disappointment with the lack of demonstrable improvement. As a tool, a Wiki only has the potential to accelerate teamwork and knowledge flow. To realize this potential requires committed leadership, special roles, and initial content seeding.

We'll be unpacking these dynamics together in upcoming articles...

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