by C.G. Lynch

How I Saved My Intranet: One Wiki At a Time

Oct 28, 20084 mins
Collaboration SoftwareConsumer ElectronicsSmall and Medium Business

E-commerce company Bill Me Later was tired of messy reply-all emails and ugly shared drives where employees found documents on a wing and a prayer. Using a wiki based on open-source technology from MindTouch, they've reaped better collaboration and better customer service.

Though e-commerce companies generally have the benefit of not being held to technology decisions made decades earlier, it only took Bill Me Later, a web-based company (recently acquired by eBay), eight years to see its intranet and file sharing methods become pretty standard for the modern enterprise: that is to say, inefficient. The company’s 350 employees were e-mailing around Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint attachments, losing track of which version was the most current, while major upgrades to the company intranet had to go through IT.

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Troy Saxton-Getty, Bill Me Later’s VP of engineering, says after joining the company in May, he realized that the company was a prime candidate for a wiki. The company needed to make its intranet a user-generated central area for employees to collaborate on documents, share best practices and update vital company information about customers. He picked MindTouch, an open-source wiki that he had implemented at a real-estate firm, where he says employees experienced similar collaboration challenges.

“You need to replace the ‘x’ drive or a ‘j’ drive or wherever these documents have been hanging out for years, and only one or two admins in the company know where to find everything,” he says. “This paradigm is almost twenty years old at most companies.”

Seed it Right

To grow the new intranet, Saxton-Getty started with a core group of 50 people representing each department. A big reason he touts MindTouch: unlike other wikis, it’s very user-friendly to non-technical users, Saxton-Getty says. He felt confident that all his early adopters could handle using it with minimal training.

That simplicity starts with the process for contributing content, he says. Because the wiki requires no HTML experience for users, and it works on a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor, the users could make themselves bio pages detailing their expertise. Once staffers got comfortable with the tool, they began expanding their use of it, Saxton-Getty says.

“Once we got these early adopters using it, pretty soon they were saying, ‘why can we make a group page, and after that, why can’t we make a departmental page?” he says.

Because MindTouch offers users the ability to take information on their intranet and combine data together — a Web 2.0 term known as a “mashup” — pretty soon users were able to mix financial information with, say, scheduling and calendars.

Another key to making the wiki successful: seed it with some information to get people interested in using it. This has been viewed by analysts and other implementers of social software within the enterprise as very important. Though successful wikis are driven by users who update it with information that it’s important to them and their colleagues, to get a baseline of engagement you need to have something in there to start.

One place to start? Saxton-Getty encouraged IT to put their project list online, in an effort to lead the way in making information throughout the company more transparent. If people wondered about their technology requests with IT, they no longer needed to send an e-mail and hope for a response — it was right there.

Progress grew from there. Bill Me Later’s main business is providing an expedited check out process for other e-commerce sites. When it comes to managing clients, Saxton-Getty says, a lot of presentations and other useful content has been put into a wiki. He also says users were happy to see this information become more engaging than a textual Office file — since MindTouch allows you to upload videos, photos and audio as well.

Another example of what a wiki could change for you? Think busywork.

“People would ask me for status reports of what I’m doing,” Saxton-Getty says. “I don’t give status reports ever. If you want a status report, go to the wiki. It’s there. My to-do list is there. Why should I email the same information to you, and you, and you?” he says.