The intranet is dead – long live the wiki
A new software implementation is growing in stature to become the reviver of the corporate intranet, smashing the skills barriers between those in the organisation who have the knowledge and those who are qualified to capture and centralise it.
The wiki, a piece of software that allows users to freely create and edit Web page content using any browser, has been hailed as the redeemer of the much-hyped intranet website that burned so much money for disappointing results in so many companies.
The idea of the corporate intranet website was attractive: capture and centralise the business knowledge that is otherwise chaotically distributed throughout the business. Many businesses poured enormous resources into setting up an intranet website, only to watch it fail to deliver on the promise and fall into disuse.
The problem was simple: most implementations presented a major technical barrier to entry. Management of the intranet website was the responsibility of a chosen few, who constituted a knowledge bottleneck.
A wiki, derived from the Hawaiian term for quick, is essentially a small piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit Web content using any browser and no other special tools. In one, simpler description, a wiki is \”the simplest online database that could possibly work\”.
The concept was developed in 1995 by internationally revered software architect, Ward Cunningham, to facilitate an online discussion about software development. Since then, the wiki\’s practicality and ease of use have led to its adoption for countless business, social, and personal projects. The tool is a website where anybody can post material or make changes to existing material without having to know any special commands or programming languages. All the contributor needs to do is click the \”edit\” link on the page, and he or she will be taken to an online form that allows them to edit the content.
Technologically, there\’s nothing new about the wiki – it\’s just a website. This makes its business value easy to overlook, particularly given the failure of the intranet website in many organisations, where rollout was expensive and adoption was poor.
The implications it has for business, however, are powerful. Essentially a wiki is an electronic notebook shared by a company, department or project team. It\’s as easy to read as a website. What makes it so special, says Hearn, is not so much how you get information out of it, but how the information gets there in the first place.
Imagine a content management system that is fully integrated into a website. Imagine every page on the site having an \”edit this page\” link on it. Imagine that editing a page requires no knowledge of HTML, and is as easy as typing up an e-mail message, with a few simple textual markup tricks for advanced features such as bullet lists, tables and links.
Imagine that, and you\’re imagining a wiki. It allows executives, project managers, engineers and clerical staff alike to participate in adding and updating content in a shared electronic notebook that\’s as easy to interact with as a website.
A wiki smashes the historical divide between the people who put content on a website, and the people who use that content.
Wikis have several unique properties compared with other kinds of collaborative communication forums. Any and all information being aggregated in a wiki can be changed or deleted by anyone. Unlike protected Web pages, articles added to a wiki are at the editorial discretion of the wiki\’s other participants. There is trust involved in the development of a wiki. Any inaccurate, poor quality information, however, can be immediately removed so that wikis select good participants using a survival-of-the-fittest approach.
Conventionally, the knowledge required to execute business is distributed throughout the players in the business. New facts arise, old facts change and it takes time for these changes to spread throughout the business, if they do so at all. Commonly, this is addressed through group e-mail, which everyone then has to archive and search for when required. This short-term work-around does not scale, and the flow of knowledge silts up.
The evolving business knowledge is then slow to make it onto the intranet website, because there are far fewer technically qualified people to operate the site than there are people with access to new and changing information. So the intranet website quickly becomes stale, untrustworthy and thus useless.
The wiki eliminates the bottleneck between the people with the information and the people who can make it available, by empowering everyone to capture and update business knowledge. Website management skills, knowledge of HTML and specialised content management systems training are removed as barriers to entry, and everyone gets to participate.
Ultimately, the likelihood that staff will update a shared, electronic notebook depends on the ease with which they can do so. Good wiki implementations make additions and updates as easy as sending a group e-mail.
The value proposition of a wiki is remarkable, given that it is simply a new application of existing technology. But its simplicity belies great power waiting to be harnessed by business.
Given the availability of free, open source implementations, the cost-to-value ratio should be enough to entice managers once burned by expensive, failed intranet websites.
Sheldon Hearn is IT Architect at Clue.