Wikis That Work: Four IT Departments Get It Right

When you're one of a two-person team tasked with supporting a geographically dispersed user base, any kind of self-help technology that takes the burden off IT is welcomed with open arms. That's why Ernest Kayinamura of Enel North America and his lone counterpart have actively embraced wikis as a way to make IT materials more accessible to the end users they support.

And they're not alone. More and more tech departments are turning to wikis as an easily managed, low-overhead, Web 2.0 way to facilitate communication within workgroups or across the enterprise.

According to the world's most famous wiki -- Wikipedia -- a wiki is a collection of hyperlinked, collaborative Web pages that can be easily edited by multiple people using a simple markup language. Ward Cunningham, who in 1994 developed what's considered to be the first wiki, WikiWikiWeb, envisioned it as "the simplest online database that could possibly work."

Nearly 15 years later, that concept is gaining ground in a growing number of IT organizations, including four that we profile below -- Enel North America, NYK Group, ShoreBank Corp. and SAP AG.

Enterprise wikis tend to have more structure than public wikis, which can become something of a free-for-all, observers say. Corporate wikis are typically built to support specific organizational or departmental tasks and employ stricter rights-management policies to ensure control over access to corporate intellectual property.

Compared with e-mail on the low end and more complex knowledge management systems on the high end, enterprise wikis offer a simpler, more natural way of sharing information and fostering collaboration on group tasks, proponents say.

Self-Help Wikis Ease IT's Burden

Take Enel North America's wiki experiment. What started out in 2005 as a pilot -- specifically, using a wiki as a hub to manage database application development -- has blossomed over the years into a full-blown content management platform that lets Enel's 260 end users help themselves to IT information that was previously delivered by Kayinamura's team through e-mail or over an intranet.

Using Traction Software Inc.'s TeamPage enterprise wiki program, the Enel IT group now makes everything from training materials, computer and cell phone usage policies to background articles and software documentation available to end users via its wiki.

"We needed to provide as much self-help reference materials as possible to reduce the time burden on IT," explains Ernest Kayinamura, information and communication technology manager at the company, which owns and operates renewable energy projects. "We load the wiki up with stuff, and there's a neat e-mail digest feature that alerts people about any new postings. With a traditional Web page, it's difficult to get people to check back in."

Kayinamura's IT team also uses the platform as a central hub for key network and license information instead of storing the data in separate Word documents. In this capacity, they take advantage of TeamPage's security features to ensure that information is only accessible to approved IT staff.

And Enel continues to use the wiki as a project management tool, which Kayinamura says remains a more efficient option than e-mail. "If someone joined a project at a later date, they'd have to load 50 to 75 e-mails to catch up," he explains. "With the wiki, any new person joining the project can get up to speed much more quickly."

Wikis Provide Fast, Flexible Communication

For IT organizations, especially smaller, resource-constrained groups, wikis promise to streamline a lot of the communication that mostly transpires in e-mail, while making it easier to keep colleagues abreast of critical project changes without having to deploy an expensive, enterprise collaboration platform.

"Wikis become a way to extend the depth of connectivity between people much better than using e-mail," says Stewart Mader, an independent consultant who blogs on wikis at Grow Your Wiki, and the author of Wikipatterns. "It's not just a place for incoming communication -- wikis make everything available to you at anytime."

The IT departments within NYK Group would agree. They're trading up a variety of traditional communication tools, including the corporate intranet, for an enterprise wiki they say is better able to handle everything from sharing project management tasks to collaborating with offshore development partners.

NYK Group, the logistics and trucking arm of the Japan-based container and shipping company NYK Logistics, is leveraging an enterprise wiki within its IT department for a number of tasks, including project management, change management and knowledge management. For example, instead of disseminating a companywide e-mail informing employees of hardware changes or software upgrades, IT now notifies anyone affected by the changes via a wiki with subscription notification capabilities.

"The wiki has added tremendously to IT's ability to provide service," says Alek Lotoczko, intranet project manager. "People have a tendency to junk e-mail without reading it. Now, information is getting to people who need to know, and it's cut down on full e-mail in-boxes and waiting for e-mail alerts each day."

Separately, NYK uses a wiki to keep multiple peer IT groups in the loop on the status of various projects. "Now there's one place where people can get searchable access to information, whereas before it was filed away in people's [individual] e-mail in-boxes," Lotoczko explains. The tagging and structure capabilities of the enterprise wiki tool (in this case, Atlassian's Confluence) also help the team easily build up an IT knowledge base of bug reports and troubleshooting guides.

Lotoczko's IT group has gone a step further and swapped its project management tool for another Confluence wiki that enables employees to collaborate with outsourced Web site development partners, taking advantage of the tool's permission and security controls to limit access to intellectual property and other company materials to specific subsets of users.

"It's allowing us to do what could have been done via e-mail and face-to-face visits, but it's cheaper and more efficient [with the wiki]," he explains. "With this archive, there's a permanent schedule record that's searchable and that we can learn from, which couldn't have been done before."

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