by Margaret Locher

How to Build Your Own Wikipedia

Feb 27, 20089 mins
Enterprise Applications

Wikis are useful business tools. With planning and some staff time, you can make your own online collection of useful articles, tailored to your organization's needs, to communicate about business processes, manage collective know-how and more.

This story was updated in the May 1, 2008 issue of CIO magazine to include new reporting. Read the latest story here.

A funny thing happened on the way to Web 2.0: Wikis went to work. Businesses are turning to wikis to cut time from projects, remain competitive and improve their processes.

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A wiki is a website that can be edited collectively by users at will. The most famous model is Wikipedia, the massive, user-generated encyclopedia. This shared-document model means wiki documents can be modified by anyone with access, adding and revising what’s there. And while companies are using blogs to increase awareness within their organization about important events and projects, business executives, project managers and frontline employees are beginning to look at how internal wikis can help them be more efficient, to promote collaboration and make it easy for users to find and use information about business processes, company policies and more.

Wikis used for training, knowledge management, or to set business processes in place help companies organize and document their process while promoting collaboration among employees.

Before you set out to create a wiki to help manage your next project, there are necessary steps to go through in preparation for launching it companywide. You need to define the purpose of your wiki, pick the technology that is right for you and ask for feedback from test users. And once the wiki is up and running, you will need to be diligent about maintenance.

Why a Wiki? Make Sure You Know

If you can’t clearly and simply state what you hope you accomplish by building and maintaining a wiki, then you aren’t ready to get started.

Jeff Brainard, the director of product marketing at Socialtext, a hosted service and wiki software provider, says that if the scope isn’t carefully defined, the wiki won’t be off to a good start. Have lots of conversations about the purpose of the wiki and what improvements you hope it will make to a project or process.

Know that a clear focus is essential.

Pitfall to avoid: Brainard says, “80 percent of wikis fail because the scope wasn’t clearly defined. The others succeed because of the mentality that was there going in.”

Outline Your Wiki’s Structure

The brainstorming and outlining stage is the best time to set up rules.

Define to what extent end users will be able to change each page of the wiki. Set standards for how administrators will respond to updates from users. During this stage, it’s good to agree on big-picture plans as well as on more specific limitations, such as not allowing users to upload text files or videos.

The wiki’s structure sets the tone for its future use, and thus its value.

Pitfall to avoid: Relaxing your control on the structure. Administrators of the wiki must keep pages and entries clean and orderly, or the wiki won’t be useful to anyone and people will stop contributing and referring to it.

Hire A Gardener for Your Wiki

Once you have parameters for what the wiki will accomplish, create a plan that details who will be responsible for what.

Someone has to be in charge. Brainard says that whoever is leading the effort needs to “get buy-in from key players to help set up the structure.” Those core people will be “gardeners” who help the wiki grow, maintain it and help new users, says Brainard.

There may be five people who talk during the development stage of the wiki, and maybe they will all be administrators of the wiki once it launches. Assign just one or two people to the position of “gardener.” Once the wiki is open to the entire company, the gardeners should keep a close eye on its expansion.

“Maintenance is critical,” says library technologist Jessamyn West, who has created wikis, and describes herself as a happy end user of many wikis. “The person building the wiki needs an organizational sense of how to present the information or no one will be able to find anything.”

Pitfall to avoid: You don’t want your wiki to be just a dumping ground for information. A wiki is not meant only to be used for storage, it’s meant to encourage conversations and dialogue, and to be a reference tool. The gardener should not be shy about pruning.

Some Examples of Useful Public Wikis

A random sampling of interesting public wikis:

Wikipedia is the well-known user-generated encyclopedia.

• The World of Warcraft game has a wiki for its game-players.

• A public wiki for Jim Henson’s Muppets.

• The WikiTravel guide.

• The rock band Nine Inch Nails posted a wiki about its new album.

• The television series Lost has two wikis: Lostpedia and The Lost Wikia.

• The Library Success wiki is a place for librarians to share best practices.

Decide on Tools for Your Wiki

You need to decide how to build the wiki, and whether you will spend money to build it.

Companies like Socialtext help companies structure, deploy and maintain their wikis via appliances, hosted service and software. Socialtext has set up and tracked wikis for organizations like Boston College, Epitaph Records and IKEA. Other vendors like BrainKeeper direct companies in creating a wiki that will encourage knowledge sharing, and many corporations find their guidance valuable.

But that’s not mandatory. As technology librarian West says, “Why buy software when all the things you need are free?”

Free hosted wikis like WetPaint allow anyone to easily build a collaborative website. WetPaint includes features like video integration, customizable templates, profiles for users, address book upload, and version control that allows you to refer back to an earlier iteration of any page.

If a group of employees goes the free, do-it-yourself (DIY) route, they can create and maintain their wiki, for, say, a short-term project without needing to get IT involved. Plus, says West, “it’s empowering to see what you can do on your own. Some tools are often so user-friendly that, if you can use Word, you can use them.”

Pitfall to avoid: Don’t go the DIY route just because its free. Similarly, don’t jump into a contract agreement because you think having a vendor host your wiki will be easier.

Think about why you need the wiki, who has time to devote to it and how long you intend to be contributing to it. Wikimatrix is a site that can help you identify which software is right for you by comparing options according to price, security, support, features and multimedia options. There are a lot of wiki tools out there. Among them are Edit Me, and ThoughtFarmer, neither of which is open source. And of course, Wikipedia itself has a page that compares wiki options both free and for-fee.

If you want a wiki to help manage one project, or if you’re a first-time wiki creator or user, you might decide it’s worth working with a third-party hosting vendor, who can help you avoid snags. If the wiki has a long life ahead of it, perhaps as a knowledge management tool, you might want to save money and use free online tools. (And reread the section on “Hire a Gardener.”)

Decide How to Set Up and Organize Your Wiki

Building a wiki means considering aspects such as what format it should take, what design template to use, how to organize the wiki’s headings and lists.

Consider using an auto-generated template to make it easy for users and so all of the pages look the same, says West. “And if you want to make a change to all the pages, you just change the template once,” she adds.

Use a header on pages that contain important information so users know what they are looking at. Also, start a list of bookmarks for websites that are valuable reference tools.

Pitfall to avoid: Administrators of the wiki must keep pages and entries clean and orderly, or the wiki won’t be useful to anyone and people will stop contributing and referring to it. When you have a list of bookmarks and links, “people always add, but never subtract,” says Jessamyn West. “You end up with an appallingly large list and users are unhappy.” This is where the gardener comes in: That person should keep the list from becoming unwieldy so it continues to be valuable.

Test Your Wiki With a Limited Group

You should pilot test the wiki with a limited group of users and ask for feedback.

If a marketing team creates a wiki, its members should ask for feedback from colleagues in sales, for example. Other departments might not contribute content to the wiki, but they will benefit from the information available there, so get their feedback. If your wiki will be kept within your department, make sure you have a conversation with employees who will want to use or contribute to it.

Brainard notes that small teams or groups in a company will often bypass IT and start with a wiki appliance or hosted service. If they decide to deploy it enterprisewide, they then involve IT, and integration with current infrastructure becomes more important.

IT executives and managers should keep their ears open about what departments are experimenting with wikis so they know what services they might be called on to support. In many cases, though, a team will create a wiki for itself, and IT won’t need to be involved in its creation, launch or support.

Pitfall to avoid: If you are going to the trouble of starting with a small group, don’t brush off the group’s feedback; it’s valuable to the future success of your wiki. Incorporate the comments into the structure and setup of the wiki.

Promote Your New Wiki: Celebrate, Publicize, Share

Make everyone who might benefit from using the wiki aware that it’s available to them.

Executives should mention it in their communication with the company, whether that’s via e-mail or newsletter, or at company meetings. A wiki is meant to be used, and it should also be a collection of articles and information that is changing and growing and shifting to meet the needs of its users. Brainard says that executives could even use the wiki to publish blog content for employees to read as a way to increase visibility and adoption of the wiki.

Pitfall to avoid: Keep an active wiki. Revisit it often. When companies or departments see their wiki stagnating, “it’s often the result of a poorly defined focus or a bad structure,” says Brainard. “Or people aren’t maintaining it.”