Putting Wikis to Work

Artwork: Chip Taylor
First appearing in 1995, the "wiki" approach to creating interactive and collaborative Web pages quickly became the star format for social networks, but too often business also-rans. Part of the problem comes from top-down managers uncomfortable with underlings making changes without authorization, and from stories of update wars on the most famous wiki, Wikipedia, the encyclopedia written by users. But successful corporate wikis abound, including SamePage from eTouch Systems.

Wiki is the Hawaiian word for fast, and wiki wiki is nonsensical, like saying "fast fast" or "run run." The word sounds cute and friendly, another strike against the technology being accepted in the board room.

Yet what type of business is more serious and conservative than a boutique merchant banking firm, especially in today's financial climate. Meet Armen Grigorian, a manager at Defoe Fournier and Company, merchant bankers since 1824. They didn't have a wiki in 1824, but they have had one for more than two years, and Grigorian loves it.

"We needed a way for people to collaborate on projects. All our projects have at least six people involved," said Grigorian. In a company of a dozen people, half the employees work together on each project. The problem is, those employees are scattered around, between headquarters in New York City, Atlanta, Rochester, Pittsburgh, and even Armenia.

Grigorian continues with a description that sounds like most small businesses. "There's no real IT department or money to develop a custom application. We rely on typical tools for small businesses, like Excel and Word from Microsoft. We're all finance and accounting people who can just barely use a computer."

Defoe Fournier needs to keep all their working documents per project in a central place where everyone can get to them from anywhere, securely. SamePage makes it easy for Grigorian and his coworkers to organize their documents per project, keep track of documents as they change, and store files for finished projects so they're out of the way yet still easily accessible.

"When we start a new project, I assign someone to start it, and I allocate the jobs and access to the project files," said Grigorian. "We have pages for each project with discussions and notes. Sometimes we have live discussions by invitation, or people can comment later."

SamePage provides access control features so you can allow or deny access to anything for anyone. This function, called ACL or Access Control List, has been the basis for secure access to files on shared servers since the early 1980s. File servers and network-attached storage devices still work the same way. Grigorian occasionally lets partners get limited access, but not customers.

The key for wiki success in general and SamePage in particular for Grigorian is that the technology disappears when you get to work. Too often we must actively fight technology to get our work done. Most small business people prefer transcending technology when working and focusing on the problem at hand, such as expanding spreadsheets or growing documents. Grigorian says three or four people are logged in to their SamePage pages every moment of the workday.

While Grigorian uses the hosted model and stores their documents on the SamePage servers, eTouch also offers on-site software for companies to host themselves. If you're worried about someone else keeping your important documents, run the inhouse system. If you have people scattered around, the hosted system eases access and provides pretty darn good security. I've yet to hear of any hosted collaboration system being hacked and losing data. If you know of one, let me know.

Grigorian spends US$100 per month on SamePage. I asked how they would work if SamePage disappeared, and he said, "don't say that, it puts fear in my heart." They have a separate backup process for their documents, but they've never had trouble working with SamePage, and Grigorian recommends the service to others regularly.

I wrote about a similar system used by a wine importer nearly four years ago (SMB global collaboration) In that case the company needed e-mail and shared calendars as well as document storage, and they used HyperOffice. The wine importer had to juggle employees and suppliers across 23 of the 24 time zones, so a hosted system made great sense for them.

One advantage of SamePage and PBwiki that I mentioned not long ago is the flexibility of the pages you can create for your needs. Services offer templates as a starting point, or you can start with a blank page and create your own customized answer to your own problem. Some of the systems offer programmers access to make the system sing and dance in new ways.

SamePage offers their service free for up to five users and a limited number of projects and pages. Pricing for up to 20 users starts at $100 per month. While the SamePage Web site lists all manner of huge companies, remember that Grigorian's merchant back has a dozen employees. Departments of huge companies find services such as this less expensive than using their own IT department.

Many approach wikis as a giant whiteboard in the cloud, allowing all authorized users, or the public like Wikipedia, to add their own ideas to the ideas of others. That's valid, but that's not the typical business process in many companies. For those, controlling access and sharing documents wins over the ease of adding comments to an ongoing discussion.

Whatever your needs, don't forget that a technology with a stupid name can be smart business.

This story, "Putting Wikis to Work" was originally published by Network World.

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