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."

Wikis Streamline Project Management

With a wiki, important project milestones, schedule changes or problem resolutions can be easily gathered and accessed from one place rather than becoming lost or overlooked in a crowded e-mail in-box, consultant Stewart Mader says. In addition, wikis encourage participation from colleagues who may or may not have been included as part of an e-mail chain.

And wikis can be better than discussion forums or software version management systems in compressing communication into more useful, actionable information, says Christian Wagner, author of "The Wiki in Your Company: Lessons for Collaborative Knowledge Management," a report conducted by the Society for Information Management's Advanced Practices Council. "There's less noise and more signal in wiki conversations," says Wagner, who is also a professor at the City University of Hong Kong.

That's a statement ShoreBank's 30-person IT group would agree with. With between 40 to 100 projects live at any given moment, the team regularly put its juggling skills to the test as it struggled to stay on top of details.

Finding big-league project management tools overkill for a team of its size, the group relied mostly on e-mail and spreadsheets -- and sometimes stand-alone project management software -- to share project progress and information.

But the patchwork system didn't always work: The IT group sometimes missed deadlines, inadvertently had people working on the same initiatives and had difficulty getting an enterprise view of its resource allocation, according to John Evans, senior vice president and director of IT for the $2 billion Chicago-based bank.

It was time for change. A year or so ago, Evans' group began transitioning project management tasks to an enterprise wiki using Traction Software's TeamPage. Today, the wiki is the management hub for all IT projects, everything from software migrations to implementation of a mobile banking initiative.

"The power of the wiki is that the IT department can go to one place to see the entire discussion thread on a project," Evans explains. "Teams are much more informed and much better managed because knowledge sharing is easier and more efficient."

Project status is much easier to capture at a glance with a wiki. Using the software's tagging and reporting capabilities, each piece of communication -- a status report, a feature change, a list of user requirements -- is entered into the wiki and associated with a particular project. In this way, Evans' team can easily view and report on project status. "With just one click, you can see all the activity that's gone on from the beginning until a project closes out," he says.

While that level of detail might be too much for a larger group to absorb, it's perfect for his small team, Evans says. "This kind of tool might be too busy for a larger IT organization, but for a small to midsize IT shop, it's certainly worth taking a look," Evans recommends.

Wikis Engage Peers

Even the best designed wikis don't work if people won't use them. The best way to get people engaged is to make sure you've clearly articulated the benefits of participating in the wiki environment.

Mindful of that adage, SAP's Software Developer Network (SDN) wiki, a reference and collaboration tool for more than 1 million independent SAP software developers, employs a point system to encourage participation and recognize its most active and valued members.

Under the SAP Contributor Recognition program, members are awarded points for every technical article, code sample, blog post and wiki contribution they make. SDN employees rank wiki posts based on their content and value to the community.

Top contributors get recognition among their peers on the SDN Web site, and the points they accumulate can also be traded in for a variety of giveaways, including the top prizes such as free admission to SAP's TechEd developers conference. In addition, SAP makes a donation to the United Nations' World Food Programme's Food for Education initiative.

The point system was designed as a bit of competition to increase the quality of answers to the 5,000 to 7,000 posts that come into SDN daily, according to Mark Finnern, chief community evangelist for SAP SDN. "The pace of answering questions wasn't the problem, the problem was the quality of answers," he explains.

Previously, using a more free-form community system, "People who had the knowledge were putting out answers that were getting shorter and shorter because the same questions were asked again and again," Finnern says. Now, the wiki's ability to create structure and put tags around the content makes it easier for participants to locate the information they need than at online forums and other venues, he says.

Making Wikis Work

Despite their promise, companies have been somewhat slow to adopt wikis on an enterprisewide scale. According to a September 2007 Enterprise and SMB Software Survey by Forrester Research Inc., only 3% of 1,017 North American and European enterprise decision-makers said they were planning a large-scale, strategic wiki implementation in the next 12 months, though 10% said they were experimenting with smaller, pilot wiki projects.

That number may be starting to change. A March 2008 Gartner Inc. survey (subscription required) of 360 U.S.-based IT organizations indicated that wikis and blogs were being used by more than half the organizations surveyed.

Ironically, one of the biggest reasons companies are holding back on corporatewide deployments may be because of the success of that most famous wiki, Wikipedia. "When you first hear about a wiki at work, the thought is it's a freewheeling, utopian, almost hippyish Wikipedia where people get into edit wars, have huge disagreements and where there have been well-known scandals," Mader says.

For a wiki to be successful, it has to mimic the workflow structure that already exists in an organization. In addition, Mader says, enterprise wikis must integrate with common network services like LDAP, which facilitate accessibility, and must support permission sets, which allow managers to limit access to information by individual or by job title.

Have Your Say

What's the best use of an IT wiki you've encountered?

There are other factors required for a wiki to work its magic, even within IT organizations that are typically more progressive about adopting new technology. A corporate culture that values collaboration and knowledge sharing is critical, as is a champion who has the clout within the IT group to encourage wiki use.

Participants need to be willing to go out on a limb by sharing ideas that are still in progress. "With traditional solutions, people only participate if they feel they have the complete story," says Wagner. "With a wiki, we're saying even incomplete ideas are good. Yet no one wants to look less than fully informed in front of their peers or superiors."

But as early adopters like Enel, NYK, ShoreBank and SAP build on each wiki success, wiki fans say it's only a matter of time before the technology ushers in a whole new way of working in the enterprise.

Beth Stackpole, a frequent Computerworld contributor, has reported on business and technology for more than 20 years.

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