by Margaret Locher

More on How to Build Your Own Wikipedia

Apr 17, 200812 mins
Personal Software

The technology npopularized by Wikipedia can help companies gather and manage their own collective knowledge. Here's how to nget started.

This story was updated from an earlier verion to include new reporting. Read the previous version here.

Tony Pagliarulo, VP of application development with information technology vendor EMC, and his team were building a knowledge management system three years ago and needed a way to organize in one place all of the schedules, code and other details of the project. He chose a wiki—a software application that allows groups of users to create, edit and comment on online documents—so that each team member could contribute and access up-to-date information on the project.

Because his team had the most current information, they were able to make better decisions and get the project done faster. And Pagliarulo has used wikis to manage IT projects at EMC ever since. Meanwhile, EMC’s use of wikis has expanded to support other business functions and purposes. “Wikis are now used broadly throughout EMC to store documents, create logs and encourage discussions,” Pagliarulo says. “There are hundreds of communities used for project management and team-building.”

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Diverse organizations, including businesses, schools and government agencies, are waking up to the benefits of wikis—one of the group of Web-based applications designed to improve information sharing and collaboration known collectively as Web 2.0. By making it easier to gather and share information as well as record discussions about a subject, wikis (familiar as the software behind online encyclopedia Wikipedia) can help people improve their processes and get projects done faster. Among 311 CIOs who participated in CIO’s 2008 Consumer Technology survey in January, 30 percent said they provide wikis as corporate applications. Almost half of those who use wikis said they employ them primarily as a collaboration tool, with employee communication cited as the second most common reason for supporting wiki software.

There are more positives than negatives to using wikis. They don’t require a lot of personnel to support them and many of the tools are free. At some companies, end users run their own wikis, without help from IT (and sometimes without IT’s knowledge—more on that shortly). But for organizations that want to deploy wikis enterprisewide, or where it’s important that end users follow consistent rules, IT departments must be prepared not only to choose the right software and support it, but also to help define the purpose, structure and scope of company wikis.

Here’s how to get started:

Decide Why You Want a Wiki

Early adopters say corporate wikis work best when they’re focused narrowly on a specific project or collection of information, as well as on a specific group of users. The heated debate within the Wikipedia community over its editorial policies suggests that, at the very least, having lots and lots of contributors begets conflicts over wiki management. “Wikis are very good for a departmental project,” says Pagliarulo. “It remains to be seen how this technology will scale for active collaboration among very large groups” and across multiple locations. It’s possible, therefore, that if you’re a multinational company you might end up with a wiki for each business location or department along with a global one to serve bigger-picture conversations.

Defining the scope of your wikis will also help you determine which software best suits your needs. 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. And Wikipedia itself has a page that compares wiki options.

Later, having a well-focused wiki can help you get people to use it. Alexander Milne, senior director of public technology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, decided he needed a wiki to help his team share documents in a central repository that was easy to access. Wikis appealed to Milne as the solution because, “You just need a browser and you’re ready to go.” He deployed a free, open-source application called Moinmoin. After three years, Milne’s wiki has become the go-to spot for most IT documents. “I have heard on more than one occasion, ‘Let me check the wiki’ or ‘I believe that was documented on the wiki,” he says.

Choose Your Software

The software used by Wikipedia is the open-source Media Wiki. MediaWiki and many other wiki applications can be downloaded from the Web and run by an IT shop behind the corporate firewall. Other free applications, such as PBwiki or Wetpaint, may be hosted. These free applications, whether hosted or not, frequently include features like video integration, customizable templates, and version control that allows you to refer back to an earlier iteration of any page.

But there are also vendors, like Socialtext, Paux and Brainkeeper, that provide commercial wiki software options either on a hosted basis or deployed behind a company’s firewall, or integrated with other corporate systems.

Each approach has its pros and cons. Not only must you make trade-offs between cost, functionality and support, you also have to determine whether you want to let end users download and manage the applications by themselves. What’s more, employees might already be using homegrown wikis; you have to decide whether to let these be or migrate them to a corporate platform.

In fact, wikis are often developed and managed by teams outside of IT, and often without IT’s support or knowledge. Jeff Brainard, director of product marketing for Socialtext, observes that small groups within a company will often bypass IT and start with wiki software packaged in a network-ready appliance or hosted service. If a group of employees goes the free, do-it-yourself route, he says, they can create and maintain their wiki for a short-term project, without needing to get IT involved. Jessamyn West, a library technology consultant and author of the blog, has used Wetpaint and other software for various wikis. “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.”

Mistakes That Can Sink Your Wiki

1. An unclear purpose. Jeff Brainard, director of product marketing with wiki vendor Socialtext, finds from observing his company’s customers that wikis fail when their scope isn’t clearly defined.

2. An anything-goes attitude. You want to encourage users to contribute and discuss wiki content, but someone has to make sure it stays relevant. Wiki administrators must keep pages and entries clean and orderly or the wiki won’t be useful. When you have a list of bookmarks and links, “people always add, but never subtract,” says Jessamyn West, a library technology consultant. “You end up with an appallingly large list and unhappy users.”

3. The wrong software. It may be tempting to download free software and build your own wikis. But before you do, say experienced wiki creators, make sure someone has the time to maintain the pages. Similarly, don’t jump into a contract to have a vendor host your wiki if you can effectively manage it yourself.

4. Ignoring feedback. Usability is critical to wiki success. Experts advise that you start a wiki with a small group of users, and that you pay attention to what they say about how the wiki looks and functions.


At some companies, users may bring in IT only if they decide to deploy wikis enterprisewide, and need to integrate the wiki application with the larger IT infrastructure. “We have an incredibly savvy group here,” says Wharton’s Milne. “If they feel comfortable with the technology, we say go for it. If a number of faculty converge on the same solution, we will support that.”

But at other companies, such as EMC, employees are discouraged from using any platform that IT doesn’t endorse. “We do limit use of non-IT-supported wikis for security and access reasons,” says Pagliarulo.

Despite the ease of using most wiki software, as with other applications, there are some benefits to letting a vendor worry about the back-end aspects. Socialtext, for example, not only sets up and monitors wikis for its customers, it also helps brand and market them to users. The company’s customers take different approaches to wiki management: Humana uses appliances that are hosted in Socialtext’s data center, while Symantec has deployed the product behind its firewall.

Outline the Wiki’s Structure With a Small Team

Once you decide to deploy wikis, you’ll need to set up rules for using them. These include defining to what extent end users will be able to edit wiki pages, setting standards for how administrators will respond to updates from users, and setting rules around uploading text files or videos.

Two years ago, Michele Hovet, IT director for the city of Arvada, Colo., assigned a team of five to develop the city’s first wiki using MediaWiki software. “We wanted a place to look up all the projects that were happening around the city and to view information and updates,” says Hovet. She chose MediaWiki because it was free and easy to set up, although she plans to look at other applications for future projects. The IT team used the wiki to share project management information and documents. Two Web developers set up the wiki, working with other IT staff members and project managers who designed the wiki’s framework, populating it with a list of topics relevant for project management.

Pagliarulo used a six-member team at EMC when the IT department began planning its first project management wiki, which was intended for a development team of 30 people. Those six included an architect and a systems administrator, who worked with the others to evaluate the server environment and analyze how much storage space would be required to support the wiki’s growth.

If you think your wiki has an audience beyond its primary contributors, get their input too. For example, if salespeople are creating a wiki, it would be valuable for marketing staff to be able to see it so they are aware of new projects or tools the sales team is using.

Most wiki tools allow developers to build in shortcuts for end users. If consistency is important across a department or company, wikis that offer auto-generated templates make it easy for users to create and edit wiki pages while ensuring that all the pages look the same, says West. The template can have, for example, a standard header. “And if you want to make a change to all the pages, you just change the template once,” she adds.

Put Someone in Charge

Once you have parameters for what the wiki will accomplish, and how, decide who will be responsible for maintaining the content. At least at first, the wiki administrators will be one or two people among the end users and developers who set it up. Socialtext’s Brainard calls these administrators “gardeners” because they help the wiki grow, weed out outdated material and help new users.

Wiki gardeners should keep a close eye on how the wiki expands to ensure it stays true to its original purpose. “Maintenance is critical,” says library technologist West, who has created—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.”

Because a wiki is not meant only to be used for information storage, but for conversation and reference, gardeners should not be shy about pruning to keep lists and entries from becoming unwieldy.

Each of the hundreds of wiki communities within EMC has an administrator, says CIO Pagliarulo. “Each community has policies, processes and guidelines for how it should be used. An administrator ensures the data is clean and gets purged at appropriate intervals.”

Know Your End Users

In the city of Arvada, Hovet’s plans for a “one-stop shopping” wiki for project charters and guidelines hit a snag when the wiki was opened to managers and project managers across the whole organization. “We wanted everyone to contribute to the content and help shape our best practices,” says Hovet, “but other city staffers did not adapt well.”

Getting people to learn and understand a new technology turned out to be harder than the IT staffers anticipated, Hovet says. The city was rolling out new project management processes at the same time as it launched the wiki. A cross-section of city project managers felt all that newness “would have been intimidating for staff,” she says. “This was two years ago when the mention of the word ‘wiki’ earned you funny looks. Now it’s more of a mainstream tool.” Hovet’s team put project documents and other information on the city intranet instead. But Arvada’s project management team still uses the wiki.

Once you’ve agreed on the wiki’s purpose and you’re done developing it, you need to get people to use it. Among ways to get the word out, managers can mention wikis in their communications with the company, whether that’s via e-mail or newsletter, or at company meetings. Brainard says you can even use the wiki to publish company blog content for employees to read as a way to increase visibility and adoption.

Hovet didn’t promote Arvada’s first wiki very widely. But she now has plans to make the wiki software available on the city intranet, and at that point, she intends to spread the word. “We normally do a lot of promotion with new software,” she says. “I hope our implementation of wiki technology on the intranet will allow all employees to participate in conversations about topics that affect their employment with the city.”

Margaret Locher is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer.