Working the Wiki



April 17, 2007

I've been listening to some very interesting podcasts lately on Open Source Conversations, the best have been focused on the concept of the wiki. The most inspiring have been Mitchell Kapor's Wikipedia and Knowledge Communities and the panel discussion with Josh Bancroft, Ned Gulley and a few others, available in the podcast's archive, Wikis in Enterprises - Wikimania 2006.

It's been a week or so since I listened to Mitchell's talk. Couple things that struck me from this was the fact that despite the fact that Wikipedia is having a huge impact on how we work, and how we will do so in the future, it has only two staff people - everyone else is a volunteer (including the system administrators). Was also encouraging to hear that it is running using the PHP application MediaWiki and MySQL - it has certainly scaled well! It was also great to learn more about Wikipedia, it's history, struggles in the community and where Mitchell things it is going to be going in the future. It is interesting to think how this type of participatory documentation/communication could have impacts on our society. Being able to provide a comprehensive and growing encyclopedia within the One Laptop Per Child Project is a relatively simple, yet powerful outcome.

The panel discussion was also quite interesting because it focused on how organizations are starting to use wiki's and what impact they are having within heavy-weight companies like Intel. Discussing how wiki's have been adopted to deal with reducing problems with email overload, how they were adopted and how resistance to new tools was overcome. It was interesting to hear the approaches that worked and how few problems there have been in a corporate setting with inappropriate content. Several of the panelists suggested that it works because it is simple, and the challenge for geeks is to make it simpler. Unlike Power Point presentations a wiki has a lower level of access to allow people to begin participating and contributing to the knowledge base. Several of the presenters talked about the importance of including spelling mistakes and other errors in the content - intentionally to allow people to have an easy way to begin participating. Looking at types of users and patterns that encourage the productive adoption of this tool - 10% technology, 90% sociology. Even just the ability for users to easily see changes between different versions of the code can have important impacts within an organization.

This got me thinking again about using Drupal's API framework to create a wiki rather than using one of hundreds of other options. There are some very good wiki's out there, most have a default style to mark up the text and create links, it is nice with this recipe that you have choices. Because it is built on Drupal, you have a great deal of choice in setting up permissions for your users and defining roles for participation. It can be easily expanded to include other things like to do lists and messaging, which would allow you to start implementing the functionality of applications like Basecamp for your team.

Maintaining several different web applications can be very time consuming. Creating a single sign on for your community lowers the bar for people to begin participating. Having a common interface for managing your organization's event calendar, blogs & wiki will reduce training time.

I was impressed by a summary by Life Hacker of this larger article by Information Week.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.