Wiki Wiki Wah

February 24, 2010

Some scientists have argued that the key trait that positions humans as the dominant animal on Earth is our ability to collaborate. Collaboration is far more complex than basic speech. We might all be able to sing the lyrics to a Will Smith song (like the title of this post), but done without coordination, it’s nonsensical. People have the ability to work together toward common goals – by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Language, writing and the Internet were developed in our pursuit of more efficient collaboration. Now software advancements such as wikis have helped lead to a democratization of data management, enabling many users to contribute and collaborate to a shared knowledge base.

But what exactly is a wiki?

  • A wiki invites all users to edit any page or to create new pages within the wiki Web site.
  • A wiki promotes meaningful topic associations between different pages by making page link creation almost intuitively easy and showing whether an intended target page exists or not.
  • A wiki is not a carefully crafted site for casual visitors. Instead, it seeks to involve the visitor in an ongoing process of creation and collaboration that constantly changes the Web site landscape.

If you have ever searched the Web for information on some obscure topic, like the mating habits of the Gila monster for instance, then you’ve probably been impressed with the comprehensiveness of Wikipedia. Wikis, however, can be much more than general interest encyclopedias. They facilitate collaboration between users and assist in bringing order to complex sets of data.

My firm recently invested in an enterprise-ready wiki package called Confluence. The platform is used by more than 9,000 companies in 93 countries to improve, though not all at once. A major benefit of an enterprise wiki is the ability to restrict users to a trusted cadre of contributors. This helps to address the security and accuracy concerns implicit in a world-wide wiki.

The Confluence wiki – named a “workspace” – is a team-oriented, collaborative Web site that can be developed specifically for the needs of a particular project. This isn’t meant to replace existing processes, but rather augment them if necessary and give teams a better way to collaborate on project specifics. Groups or individuals can create or share content/documents with each other, hold discussions on relevant topics, consolidate or archive team-specific information and make it easier to keep up track of project milestones or deadlines.

The Confluence workspace enables users to do the following:

  • Post information, rules of thumb and references that may be useful across multiple projects.
  • Each user has the opportunity, and responsibility, to improve the posting and add more useful references.
  • Provide an up-to-date view of a project and provide a location for chronicling an ongoing narrative.
  • Assemble information throughout the project lifecycle.
  • Develop a system to identify and locate important documents discovered through the research process.
  • Provide secure online access to the latest project information from anywhere in the world.

Once you’re on the workspace, it’s very similar to the average Web site. There is breadcrumb navigation in the top left that tells you where you are. A search box is in the far right. Unlike a typical Web site, however, you can add new Web pages, edit existing pages, make comments and upload documents. More advanced tasks include editing spreadsheets online, embedding PowerPoint presentations or flowcharts, importing Word documents that become web pages, RSS feeds, displaying mathematical equations, creating calendars and tasklists, creating photo or image galleries and much more. The site can be edited with a “rich text” editor that allows you to alter font settings, create a table, create bulleted lists, insert custom characters, add hyperlinks and insert images. No knowledge of html programming is necessary; the interface is similar to Word. However, advanced wiki users can streamline page editing by using the basic wiki mark-up language.

Learn more about interfacing with the site by checking out the online documentation. The Confluence documentation site is set up as a wiki, so you can get a sense of the page layout as well as how to navigate through the wiki as intended. They have disabled the ability to add and edit content, but you can still leave comments.

How do you feel about this brave new world of open collaboration? Does it compromise security or open up new opportunities? Will the efforts of a large group of contributors lead to a disorganized mess or converge into a diverse document?

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  • Very helpful introduction to the capabilities of a wiki, which is hard to capture in the space of a typical blog post. I don’t know the answer to your questions yet, but may soon as I will be setting up a wiki, database, group, or some other web forum for collaboration on volunteer community service for civil engineers in the near future. The hard thing right now is to know which application to use, since there are so many out there, they all work a little differently, and I am new to this!

  • Thanks for the good information Ken, I wasn’t aware of these sites!

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