Neil Callahan, President of CoActive Digital, had a simple idea for implementing a wiki at his New York-based marketing firm. He would start with a small group, let them populate it with helpful information such as meeting notes and presentations, and then hold it up as an example to other departments. Those groups, in turn, would create their own wikis.
But moving towards a new tool like a wiki for collaboration, especially when people are so used to exchanging information over e-mail, can be just as big a cultural challenge as it is a technical one. E-mail has been the staple of communication for many firms for well more than a decade. As a result, Callahan says, it's critical to have a business leader own the project and encourage wiki adoption. It also helps, of course, to pick a wiki with an easy user interface so users won't shy away from contributing to it.
Picking a Social Software Platform
Large vendors such as Microsoft with its SharePoint platform have added social software to their offerings, but Callahan says such products (SharePoint in particular) required too much time and effort to implement, especially for a company with only 300 full-time employees. "There is just too much policy and governance management with SharePoint," he says. "We weren't going to kid ourselves into thinking we needed that. We aren't going to put people in the penalty box if they don't adhere to some governance or policy."
Instead, Callahan picked Socialtext, a company which makes wiki software designed for businesses. The Socialtext user interface allows people to edit and manipulate information with no HTML or coding experience. Power users — people who edit frequently — can employ a variety of shortcuts to upload links, documents and other information with greater efficiency.
While Socialtext offers customers the choice to host the data on premise, Callahan opted for a software as a service (SaaS) model where the vendor hosts the data, citing lower maintenance costs. He also says he feels comfortable with the security the vendor provides.
"It's encrypted and protected, and we could put a VPN [virtual private network] around it if we needed to," Callahan says. "But we're not putting financial statements and employee salaries on there or anything."
Pick Your Test Group
Callahan says he was adamant that moving workflows and processes from e-mail to wikis would only work if there was a good internal use case. So he turned to his business development group, which has about 30 employees.
The business development group handles specific inquiries from customers and also coordinates how work will get done internally (dictating what group in the company would handle a particular marketing pitch, for instance). As such, they have lots of meetings and accompanying documents (such as meeting notes and PowerPoint presentations) that need to be organized and shared.
Traditionally, Callahan says most of this activity had been traded ad-hoc and over e-mail, which had its pitfalls. "You'd have people mail around a 30 MB file to 25 or 30 people," he says. "We wanted to look at a new way of sharing this stuff."
Plant the Seeds, and Have a Leader
Knowing that he couldn't change the way people work overnight, Callahan populated the business development wiki with the types of documents that had been traded over e-mail, such as meeting notes. This way, he says, when the users came onto the system for the first time, they immediately found useful information.
But that wouldn't be enough to reverse years (or decades, depending on the age of the worker) of habits. After passwords and user names were given, some people still didn't always log in to the wiki; instead, these users would stick to the practice of e-mailing the same documents around.
To combat this, Callahan says it's important to get buy-in from the leader of the group using the wiki. In this case, the head of the business development team encouraged reports to use the tool by responding to emails with messages that implores them to add to, or read from, the wiki.
"She has been the steward of it," Callahan says. "She's been the person that has helped build adoption and change opinions."
Make a Good Legacy for the Future
Because social software like wikis are often a completely new piece of technology, users can tailor it to fit their needs—rather than demanding that users adapt to it, like with traditional enterprise software. With wikis, Callahan says, it's important to reinforce to people that documents will no longer be found in a tidy folder.
Instead, users will rely primarily on tagging and search. While search is like an online appliance, tagging does require a human element.
When it comes to tagging, Callahan says wiki administrators should encourage people to use human terms for their tags and try to avoid corporate jargon unless it's absolutely essential because it will make the site more reader-friendly. "Tag it with natural language rather than stuff that doesn't mean anything," he says.
Callahan himself believes in the power of search over foldering. He has Google Desktop, a search appliance that culls through a user's Windows deskop, as his primary means of discovery.
"Browsing and folders were essential before you had index and search," he says. "I just have one folder, My Documents, where I search for everything."
But Callahan realizes everyone is not like him. After all, the construction of structured Windows folders was largely a legacy to how businesses stored paper based documents — in neat, separated cabinets.
"This is new mentality," he says. For some people, this shift will be more of a psychological adjustment than a technological one.
After the CoActive business development group's users add more content to their wiki, Callahan will show it off to other groups and have them build their own sites mirroring the same model. He is also experimenting with SocialCalc, a spreadsheet application that operates on wiki-like principles, where users can edit numbers and interact with different data sets. Socialtext released the product at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston a couple weeks ago.
"The goal is for this to become our intranet," he says. "We want to get more teams collaborating on wikis."