Wikis that work: Four IT departments get it right

IT orgs harness wiki power to handle everything from tech training to project management.

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The point system was designed as a bit of competition to increase the quality of answers to the 5,000 to 7,000 posts that come into SDN daily, according to Mark Finnern, chief community evangelist for SAP SDN. "The pace of answering questions wasn't the problem, the problem was the quality of answers," he explains.

Previously, using a more free-form community system, "People who had the knowledge were putting out answers that were getting shorter and shorter because the same questions were asked again and again," Finnern says. Now, the wiki's ability to create structure and put tags around the content makes it easier for participants to locate the information they need than at online forums and other venues, he says.

Making wikis work

Despite their promise, companies have been somewhat slow to adopt wikis on an enterprisewide scale. According to a September 2007 Enterprise and SMB Software Survey by Forrester Research Inc., only 3% of 1,017 North American and European enterprise decision-makers said they were planning a large-scale, strategic wiki implementation in the next 12 months, though 10% said they were experimenting with smaller, pilot wiki projects.

That number may be starting to change. A March 2008 Gartner Inc. survey (subscription required) of 360 U.S.-based IT organizations indicated that wikis and blogs were being used by more than half the organizations surveyed.

Ironically, one of the biggest reasons companies are holding back on corporatewide deployments may be because of the success of that most famous wiki, Wikipedia. "When you first hear about a wiki at work, the thought is it's a freewheeling, utopian, almost hippyish Wikipedia where people get into edit wars, have huge disagreements and where there have been well-known scandals," Mader says.

For a wiki to be successful, it has to mimic the workflow structure that already exists in an organization. In addition, Mader says, enterprise wikis must integrate with common network services like LDAP, which facilitate accessibility, and must support permission sets, which allow managers to limit access to information by individual or by job title.

There are other factors required for a wiki to work its magic, even within IT organizations that are typically more progressive about adopting new technology. A corporate culture that values collaboration and knowledge sharing is critical, as is a champion who has the clout within the IT group to encourage wiki use.

Participants need to be willing to go out on a limb by sharing ideas that are still in progress. "With traditional solutions, people only participate if they feel they have the complete story," says Wagner. "With a wiki, we're saying even incomplete ideas are good. Yet no one wants to look less than fully informed in front of their peers or superiors."

But as early adopters like Enel, NYK, ShoreBank and SAP build on each wiki success, wiki fans say it's only a matter of time before the technology ushers in a whole new way of working in the enterprise.

Beth Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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