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How to build your own Wikipedia

Build a wiki to enhance business knowledge sharing

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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 organise 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."

Diverse organisations, 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, 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.

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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 organisations 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. WikiMatrix.org 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, customisable 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 tradeoffs 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, 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 Librarian.net 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."

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-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 backend 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 centre, while Symantec has deployed the product behind its firewall.


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