Year of the enterprise Wiki

Lightweight Web collaboration gets down to business

Ward Cunningman created the first Wiki site in 1995 to collaborate with a band of like-minded programmers on the elucidation of common software patterns. That work continues today at Microsoft, where he works in the patterns and practices group. Meanwhile, the Wiki concept -- a Web site that every reader can also write and edit --has flourished beyond all expectations.

Flexible, direct, lightweight, and requiring only a Web browser to use, Wikis suit a wide range of applications. There are Wiki implementations for a dozen programming languages and content management systems. Wikipedia, the collaborative encyclo-pedia project that began in 2001, reached critical mass in 2004. Wikipedia milestones this year included the millionth article, the 30,000th contributor, and an explosion of press coverage.

This past year was also the year in which the term “enterprise Wiki” stopped sounding like an oxymoron. As have other open source technologies --Linux, Apache, Perl -- Wikis had long flourished under the corporate radar. An amusing and telling example occurred right here at InfoWorld. Our CTO, Chad Dickerson, became interested in TWiki, a Wiki implementation that’s often used to coordinate help desk and customer support activities. When he began installing the software, however, he learned that IT operations manager, Kevin Railsback, had already done so!

The anarchic nature of the Wiki can make it seem an unlikely ally of the enterprise information manager. Modern Wikis, though, are less fragile than they may seem. Enterprise Wikis such as TWiki and Socialtext log transactions and can roll back to a prior version of every page. With that safety net in place, users can create, edit, and reorganize collections of documents while enjoying two crucial degrees of freedom.

First, the Wiki strips hypertext authoring to the bare essentials, making it easy for anyone to contribute. Second, unlike e-mail, blogs, and discussion forums, the Wiki promotes consensus above individual authorship. It’s hard to quantify the value of that style of work but easy to see how it might complement other modes of collaboration. And of course, modern Wikis also integrate with e-mail and blogs.

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First, the Wiki strips hypertext authoring to the bare essentials, making it easy for anyone to contribute. Second, unlike e-mail, blogs, and discussion forums, the Wiki promotes consensus above individual authorship. It’s hard to quantify the value of that style of work but easy to see how it might complement other modes of collaboration. And of course, modern Wikis also integrate with e-mail and blogs.

One of Socialtext’s most interesting deployments ended before most people found out about it: The software was part of the infrastructure of the Howard Dean presidential campaign. In our March cover story on social software in the enterprise, I described how the product was used at Ofoto to coordinate the activities of a software development team.

In October, another enterprise-oriented Wiki, JotSpot, emerged on the scene. As shown in an InfoWorld screencast, the goal of JotSpot, still in beta by year’s end, is to combine the traditional virtues of the free-form Wiki with tools for gathering, searching, and reporting on structured data. In early testing, I liked JotSpot’s approach to the rapid development of simple document-oriented applications.

As the Wiki phenomenon enters its second decade, it’s hard to predict just how the technology will evolve. Two things seem certain: Wiki culture will continue to thrive, and enterprise users will continue to seek lighter, easier collaboration tools. Sounds like a winning combination.

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