Wikis Beat E-Mail for Collaboration, Research Says

The use of e-mail may persist in corporations as a project collaboration tool to keep team members in the loop, but it's hardly the best route given individuals are often accidentally left off distribution lists, said a member of the open source TikiWiki Community.

"E-mail doesn't scale, it's not optimal, it's not efficient," said Marc Laporte, who is also the president of Avantech.net, a Montreal-based developer of collaborative TikiWiki-centric applications.

Laporte was speaking at the Free Software and Open Source Symposium (FSOSS) discussing TikiWiki (Tiki stands for Tightly Integrated Knowledge Infrastructure), a multilingual wiki, content management system (CMS) and groupware development platform that can be used to create wikis that also have CMS and groupware functionality.

The degree of mass collaboration today, as witnessed by the 100 million hours of thought that has gone into Wikipedia, for instance, said Laporte, would not have been possible before the days of the Internet. "It's basically turning this upside down in terms of content collaboration," he told the audience.

To prove his point, Laporte polled the audience on their use of Wikipedia versus Encyclopedia Britannica in the past six months. Wikipedia won by a landslide. Yet, the habit of team collaboration through e-mail continues to be pervasive.

Nelson Ko, president & CEO of Toronto-based Citadel Rock Online Communities Inc. and also an admin of the TikiWiki Community, described the open source development platform as a "full-fledged CMS and groupware." The CMS component, Ko detailed, can be used to build Web sites with integrated wikis, blogs, and an article publishing tool, among other things. And, the groupware component allows the management of group permissions for an unlimited number of users, and even user groups within groups.

The TikiWiki Community has been ongoing for six years now during which it has had 200 committers -- developers adding to the code base -- but currently has 80 active committers. Laporte said the platform runs on "any cheap five-dollar-a-month standard."

But while the platform is wiki-centric, the other features can be turned on or off as required by developers after they've downloaded the single code base. Laporte and Ko acknowledged that TikiWiki is better suited for some purposes than others. For instance, it's not especially good for e-commerce, enterprise resource planning and job boards.

Storing data amassed from users through TikiWiki applications is done through MySQL, but Laporte noted "the tool isn't a great analysis tool. It's just really good to have lots of people inputting data, but then if you want to do an annual report, you can just pull out your data, do your analysis, make your charts."

In an interview with ComputerWorld Canada, Ko said that TikiWiki is being increasingly used in large enterprises and although he couldn't reveal names, said there are ongoing pilots with international Fortune 500 companies using the platform "in a framework of a more organized project" such as project management and in-house collaboration.

However, Ko has observed that in enterprises, TikiWiki is used primarily to build internal applications rather than customer sites, though that often depends on the organization's customer interaction culture.

Those internal applications, said Ko, are often initially implemented in a single department where in-house developers "may have the blessing of the IT department but there is no long-term internal support" that is organization-wide. But attitudes change once other departments see the TikiWiki application in action and want it for themselves, said Ko. "So the question for us is at what point is this going to become corporate IT saying 'you want this in your entire organization instead of just being a grassroots type of activity.'"

Moreover, the open source issues that have traditionally plagued enterprises -- like lack of support, in-house skills, and control -- are not so insurmountable today given organizations are better aware of how to deal with those issues, and that there are consultants available to help ease organizations into open source.

With TikiWiki, in particular, Ko pointed out that the platform is "theme-able" so that enterprise developers can apply corporate branding to the applications they build.

Ibrahim Larchie, a Toronto-based independent open source developer, told ComputerWorld Canada that he attended the TikiWiki session seeking ideas about how to blend wikis with content management systems. "Open source is the merge between what you can do say on Wikipedia plus how you can integrate it in the learning management systems like Moodle, Sakai and Blackboard. They all have similar features but they are proprietary except Moodle," said Larchie. "What I'm interested in is how to be independent of all of these things."

Larchie was impressed by the many features available in TikiWiki and is planning on playing around with the platform to see if it might work for him. But he cautioned it "works if you have a lot of time to customize it and if you have a lot of experience with wikis in general." That combined with a lack of database integration experience could mean a steep learning curve ahead, he said.

Larchie also said he thought the code is a little centralized. "It's not as distributed as one may wish. But I guess if you're a code monkey with experience in PHP and MySQL, you probably will be fine."

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