'Wiki' is currently one of the most popular new buzz terms in business discussions. Unfortunately it is also one of the most incomprehensible for many people. But what are wikis, are they important, what benefits do they provide and are they being used successfully within large corporations?

A wiki is an online tool that allows users to update and publish content collaboratively. Anyone who has access can edit the content, using a very simple tool and an ordinary web browser. Wiki usage is known as 'collaborative authoring'.

The first wiki was a complement to the Portland Pattern Repository, created on March 25, 1995 by Ward Cunningham, who based the name on the Hawaiian term 'wiki wiki', which means 'quick'.

The largest and most famous wiki is Wikipedia - a web-based encyclopedia based on free collaborative content.

Founded in 2001, it already has more than 1.6 million articles. A more recent example of wiki innovation is Wikicities, a collection of communities with websites that you can edit.

Within the corporate environment, wikis are proving to be valuable tools for:

  • Project collaboration, information sharing and managing content.
  • Design collaboration.
  • Organising a community around a written project.
  • Distributed intelligence gathering.
  • A knowledge base or collaborative extranet.
  • Fostering information flow within an organisation.
  • Helping distributed teams work together seamlessly and productively.
  • Eliminating the one-webmaster syndrome of outdated intranet content.

The main features of wikis are:

  • A simple (and free) way to build and manage content.
  • Support hyperlinks and has simple text syntax for creating new pages and crosslinks between internal pages on the fly.
  • Accessibility from everywhere without any software installation (just a browser).
  • Easy-to-track and constantly up-to-date.

Organisations that have leveraged wikis include Disney, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW), Yahoo, IBM, Lufthansa, New York Times Digital and Motorola.

For example, Disney Corporation uses wikis, integrated into a collaborative toolset along with internal blogs and RSS feeds, as part of an information sharing strategy aimed at facilitating internal discussion, and documentation.

Investment Bank DrKW uses wikis to empower geographically dispersed individuals to publish and collaborate, for tracking project development, decreasing the number of emails, plus sharing and developing new system specifications and product overviews.

Some organisations are already adding wiki-like features to their existing systems to support collaborative efforts, resulting in combined systems promising great updatability and optimised sharing of knowledge and information.

We have also seen the emergence of commercial, wiki-based collaboration software, like Socialtext and Confluence ('the Enterprise Wiki'), which offer an improved, user-friendly interface with wiki capabilities.

As wikis become more mainstream, facilitated by the evolution of their technology, some organisations will start to adopt them as part of a holistic approach to knowledge creation and management, linked to cultural change. Wikis can be used for:

  • Knowledge and information sharing.
  • Identification of best practices.
  • Content publishing.
  • Project management and documentation.

The added value from wikis is varied and includes:

  • Being a simple and flexible repository for shared information and collaboration.
  • Enabling your team to work more collaboratively.
  • Turning static and outdated documents to live and dynamic ones.
  • Facilitating the search and retrieval of documents.
  • Encouraging people to share.
  • Providing a structured approach.

Some pointers and key factors to consider in order to create a successful wiki include:

  • Make it relevant, encouraging usage and personal involvement.
  • The leaders should be identified and encouraged.
  • The leaders of the wikis should also be editors, spotting mistakes and changing them automatically.
  • Show who is the content provider.
  • Include meta-content to encourage and engage (individual user homepage, statements about the goal or culture, instructions, pages with jokes, best or funniest contributions, etc).
  • Communicate the value of joint ownership of the wiki's content. The most convincing way is for the manager to contribute valuable content himself/herself.
  • Provide incentives in the form of praise, respect by one's peers and influence. Continuous participation with the wiki should be a reward in itself.

There are always challenges when dealing with new technologies, but wikis represent a relatively simple and compelling addition to the collaborative capabilities available for your organisation.

However, using wikis in isolation will significantly limit the potential for knowledge sharing and collaboration. Instead, they should be considered as one of a number of tools supporting internal communities.

In turn, those communities also need to address key issues such as providing compelling content and the need to change behaviour, in order to unlock the real benefits of collaborative working.