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How Your Business Could Use a Wiki

by Glen Emerson Morris
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While Wikis are proving to be major hits with consumers and large corporations, they're lagging behind in popularity with small to midsized businesses, primarily because SMBs don't have an IT department to help on technical projects like Wikis. In response, a small industry has grown up to help SMBs setup and operate Wikis. At this point any business that wants a Wiki can easily get one going, so the "Can you get a Wiki?" question is yes, The only question is should you.

The answer is probably yes. A Wiki can help a business in many ways, and any one of these ways could be enough by itself to justify getting a Wiki. Despite their humble, open source and populist origin Wikis have proven highly effective as document management systems, businesses processes management systems, project management support systems and knowledge bases. And there are more uses, and the list is growing as new features evolve.

So what exactly is a Wiki? A Wiki is Web based non-technical publishing system that allows people with even marginal computer skills to organize and publish information on the Internet, or their local office network. The only software required to use a Wiki is an Internet browser. Unlike standard Web pages, an understanding of HTML coding is not required to create, edit, format or link pages. This ease of use is one of the main reasons why the Wiki based Wikipedia has grown to rival the Britannica. Nearly anyone can use it, and many people do.

In popularity and function Wikis are something like blogs. Both provide an easy way for people to communicate, but Wikis exceed the capability of blogs in several ways. A blog is not designed to organize information, or post documents and other attachments the way a Wiki can. And even more importantly, a Wiki has superior search functionality, making it is very easy to find specific information within it.

For these reasons Wikis make very good document management systems. Many businesses still use folders on network file servers as their primary document management system (DMS). While this works to some extent, it fails in two areas; it's hard to find specific information within documents on a file server, and there's only a limited graphical interface to help navigate through the mass of documents. Wikis do a good job of both issues. Many Wiki applications have very solid DMS features, including document revision monitoring, access control, rollback provisions and change notification.

Wikis also make very good knowledge bases because they provide a great way for businesses to share information among employees in-house without much cost attached. Wikis also provide a great way for employees to share information with each other, and this can be important. Most businesses don't spend a great deal of effort documenting the "minor" details of how everyday tasks are performed on their computer systems. Manuals may have come with the major applications a business uses, but that doesn't cover the details of how the different applications are used together in an integrated process. Creating a "complete" manual of this total process can take can be a major effort if it is created all at once, but if it is created a little at a time by employees it can be remarkably inexpensive and effective.

Another use as a knowledge base is to create a Wiki page every time anyone in your business finds a problem and find a solution for it. Many problems are recurring, even if on a long time frame. By documenting a solution and making it readily available to every employee, significant time and money can be saved over the long term. As QA guru W. Edwards Deming observed, knowledge is more important than effort. As he pointed out it's far more beneficial for a business an employee to spend a few minutes looking up the password or keystroke sequence to perform a process than to spend a couple of hours trying random solutions until one works.

Another great use for Wikis is to document and support the business processes that enable a business to get anything useful done, either for itself, or its customers. As Deming observed, the best way to for a business to improve its products and services is to constantly monitor and refine its businesses processes. It's hard to do this if the processes aren't documented in the first place, and even if they are, it's still difficult if the process documents aren't readily available to all employees. The right Wiki can solve these issues, and it's not hard to find the right Wiki.

Today there are many flavors of free and commercial Wikis. A good place to research what Wiki package would best suit your needs would be the Wikipedia page Comparison of Wiki Software ( Leading candidates are TWiki, MoinMoin, PmWiki, DokuWiki and MediaWiki. It's also a good idea to see what plugins are available for each Wiki. Many Wikis available accept plug-ins that significantly extend their capability. There are plug-ins that add calendars, external database connectivity, polls, table of contents generators, and email notification of page changes, just to name a few.

Once you've determined what you Wiki need it won't be too hard to get it up and running. One option is to and install the Wiki application ion your office server, assuming you have one. This usually requires some expertise since most Wikis require a database like MySQL or equivalent, and these aren't that easy to set up. However, once the Wiki is up and running it's fairly easy for people with limited computer skills to keep it going. The other option is to use a Wiki hosting service, much like you would a Website hosting service. Many ISPs offer Wiki services for between $25 and $100 a month, a marginal expense to most businesses. And the payback can be awesome.

Wikis have proven to be a major breakthrough in communications, and if you opt for one you will probably be surprised by how many ways it can make your business more efficient, and more profitable. The Wiki may have started life as a non-commercial open source application, but it's grown into something very commercial now, and something that should not be overlooked.

Glen Emerson Morris is currently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable for misdeeds. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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