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Office Collaboration, the Wiki Way

As Wikipedia's popularity has soared, businesses have begun to investigate its underlying technology as a way to share business and financial knowledge among employees, suppliers, and customers.

“Wiki,” the Hawaiian word for “quick,” is also the name for collaborative Web sites that let users add and edit content quickly and easily.

The best-known of these collaborative sites is Wikipedia, a multilingual Web-based encyclopedia. Unlike conventional online reference works, which are updated on regular schedules by professional writers and editors, Wikipedia is written entirely by volunteers and allows most articles to be changed, edited, or updated by any user at any time. This continual, “community oriented” publishing approach has enabled it to become the world’s most largest and most current encyclopedia — though hardly the most accurate, say detractors.

As Wikipedia’s popularity has soared, businesses have begun to investigate its underlying technology as a way to share business and financial knowledge among employees, suppliers, and customers. Why use highly structured content management software, they reason, when a wiki’s collaborative process can get the job done faster and easier?

Some software providers are already taking the hint. Stellent recently added features to its Universal Content Management application that will allow businesses to build their own internal wikis atop a Web-based content-management platform. iUpload is offering a new version of its Enterprise Blogging Suite that connects wiki and blogging software to compliance, workflow, and other content-management processes. “For small workgroups, wikis fill the space between E-mails, which are hard to follow and manage, and formal content management tools,” says iUpload founder and CEO Robin Hooper.

Kate Trgovac, a Web manager at oil and gas company Petro-Canada, believes that wikis can pick up where company-based blogs leave off. Using iUpload’s software, her company plans to transfer hard-to-search blog entries and comments into indexed wiki articles. “Our purchasing group, for instance, wants to capture ideas on negotiating better contracts and setting pricing across our dealer network,” Trgovac says. “We think wikis will work just fine.”

Expanding on Petro-Canada’s notion, Stellent vice president of product management Todd Price suggests that intranet wikis and blogs can be complementary technologies. “You could use a wiki to create a competitive analysis or review documentation online,” says Price, and use a blog “to gather immediate feedback from employees, partners, and customers about new product features.”

True, the very feature that has made wikis so popular — their ability to enable almost anyone to create or edit information — can also be a weakness. When no editor vets user contributions for honesty or accuracy, readers can easily be misled, innocently or intentionally. Indeed, after numerous edits by congressional staffers to the Wikipedia entries of their senators and representatives — as well as the entries of congressional rivals — the online encyclopedia implemented a one-week block on access originating from the House and Senate offices, according to published accounts.

Price insists, however, that wiki veracity will be much less problematic in the business world than on the public Web. “In a corporate setting, the experts are the people controlling the wiki,” he notes. “They’re going to challenge any content that isn’t accurate.” For her part, Trgovac expects to see plenty of give and take in Petro-Canada’s wikis. “That’s the whole idea,” she says. “To get people to share ideas, collaborate, and arrive at a consensus.”

And, presumably, to check their partisan politics at the door.

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