Something Wiki This Way Comes

Stephen DeAngelis

March 28, 2007

BusinessWeek Online recently published a special issue on wikis in the workplace [“CEO Guide to Technology“] It offers a simple definition of what wikis are:

“Wikis are Web-based tools that make it easy for users to add, remove, and change online content. Employees at companies such as Intel, Motorola, IBM, and Sony use them for a host of tasks, from setting internal meeting agendas to posting documents related to new products.”

Each article views wikis from a different perspective. Rachel King [“No Rest for the Wiki“] begins her look by relating stories about how Intel uses its wiki — called Intelipedia — and Sony uses its wiki throughout their organizations:

“In a little more than a year, Intelpedia has amassed 5,000 pages of content and garnered 13.5 million page views. … Sony’s PlayStation team uses a wiki to help keep executives informed about products in various stages of development for the video game console. ‘The marketing people can get a sense of what’s coming their way, as well as the finance and legal people—anyone who needs to know the one-page overview of what’s going on,’ says Ned Lerner, Sony PlayStation’s director of tools & technology. And because the company needs to keep information on unreleased products under wraps, the wiki includes tight security features.”

King points out that not all employees embrace wikis. Some are disgruntled that others (especially others further down the food chain) can edit their work. Others simply find using them a hassle.

“Even employees convinced of the usefulness of wikis aren’t necessarily comfortable with them, especially when their work may be seen and tinkered with by colleagues from across the company. Some companies let employees take a more passive role, for instance with wikis that track industry news or update employees on quickly changing rules and regulations. Investment-advisory firm Manning & Napier uses a wiki to track news in specific industries, such as life sciences. For Manning & Napier, the benefits of using a wiki were made plain recently amid the debate over universal health care in states such as California and Massachusetts. The wiki helped alert employees quickly to a trend affecting the fortunes of many hospitals, helping shape the company’s investment decisions.”

She concludes that wikis still represent a culture shock, but one that has a big payoff if used correctly:

“Over time, as wikis begin to get a critical mass of information, they tend to sprawl and become unwieldy. ‘You need some kind of person who sees the long-term consequences of not organizing,’ says the Marshall School’s [Ann] Majchrzak. Most often, individual contributors are not the people who will restructure existing content. Instead, that task is left to someone Majchrzak dubs the shaper—an employee who is willing to take time synthesizing information so it’s easy to read. Executives need to encourage shapers as much as individual contributors. Otherwise, the wiki can become so unwieldy that nobody will use it, she says. Others question whether large corporations are ready for wikis. ‘Most people and most companies don’t really have a culture of collaboration and never have had one,’ says Alan Pelz-Sharpe, principal at CMS Watch, a research firm in Silver Spring, Md. ‘If you don’t have it, all the software in the world won’t give you one.’ Intel’s [Jeff] Moriarty says the tools themselves can be the catalyst for change. Intelpedia, for instance, is bringing people together and slicing through a ton of bureaucracy. ‘People are working on things independent of what they’re told to work on,’ he adds. ‘It’s connecting people globally.’ That’s the best outcome possible in the wiki world.”

Dan Carlin writes about how wikis can become infectious and enthuse an entire company to collaborate [“Corporate Wikis Go Viral“]. He focuses on two companies, Finnish mobile phone maker Nokia and London- and Frankfurt-based investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort. They started exploring wikis a couple of years ago. Carlin writes:

“In late 2004, when wikis were more buzz than proven tech tool, two small groups within Nokia’s Research Center in Helsinki created their own wikis—one to collaborate on solving specific product-design problems, the other to explore alternatives to e-mail and collaborative software. Today, Nokia estimates at least 20% of its 68,000 employees use wiki pages to update schedules and project status, trade ideas, edit files, and so on. … It’s a similar tale at Dresdner Kleinwort. A few pioneers in the IT department at its London office sent a program called Socialtext to several groups to see how it might be used to facilitate different IT tasks. The wiki program spread so quickly that Dresdner Kleinwort decided to launch its own corporate wiki. By October, 2006, the bank’s 5,000 employees had created more than 6,000 individual pages and logged about 100,000 hits on the company’s official wiki. The experience of Nokia and Dresdner Kleinwort offer insight into how to nurture the use of a radically new technology to change the way organizations work. Clearly, not everyone recognizes the value of wikis right way.”

Carlin reports that once employees were directed to use the wiki instead of email its use became viral. The bottom line for both companies was that using wikis made their employees more productive, saved them time and, therefore, money. Skeptical executives, who at first viewed wikis as new potentially time-wasting toys, were soon converts.