Wiki At Work

Published Date
01 - Dec - 2005
| Last Updated
01 - Dec - 2005
Wiki At Work
One of the key processes in any office is that of managing knowledge resources. It could be a small publication or Web site with a bank of articles and features to manage, or a BPO that takes care of client information. It has become imperative to come up with an easy solution for knowledge management (KM), courtesy its growing awareness among companies. The solution would be perfect if it were to feature a high degree of transparency while being collaborative.

Looking at this growing demand, companies are churning out software that fulfils this need. There is a catch, however-that of price. Nevertheless, wherever there is proprietary and expensive enterprise software, you'll find open source and freeware replacements. Many a time, these work better and offer far more flexibility than their pricey counterparts.

Collaborative software is something that allows several users to concurrently create and manage information on a Web site or network of pages. A wiki is a strong example of such software. Everyone associates the word 'wiki' with, the most well-known user of this tool, and this connection often results in people assuming that 'wiki' and Wikipedia are synonymous. As a matter of fact, 'wiki' in Hawaiian means 'quick' or 'fast'.

In computing terminology, it is the revolutionary tool that is talking matter from Atlanta to Zambia. Over time, the 'wiki' definition has come to mean the act of creating a wiki as well. By Wikipedia's own definition, the wiki is a simplification of the process of creating HTML pages. This results in a very effective way of exchanging information.

How does this happen? A wiki can be used to co-author documents on the Web, documents that will eventually look and act as a Web page. And this will not need any programming or dabbling in any code from your side. All you'd need is the software and a Web browser. The flexibility afforded by the tool makes it easy to maintain records or any form of database.

To quote again from Wikipedia, "A single page in a wiki is referred to as a 'wiki page', while the entire body of pages, usually highly interconnected via hyperlinks, is 'the wiki'; in effect, a very simple, easier-to-use database.'

The Origin Of The Wiki
The first wiki site was developed by Ward Cunningham, who received a Master's degree in computer science from Purdue University in 1995. He was working at the Portland Pattern Repository, and he called his idea the WikiWikiWeb.

In the late 1990s, wikis were seen as a very efficient way to develop and maintain both public and private knowledge bases. This lead to a number of online collaborative ventures opting to use this tool. Most notable among these was Wikipedia.

Enterprises soon followed suit, looking at the advantages provided by the tool. Very soon, tasks, project schedules and documentation, office intranets and other forms of internal communication in offices were managed using wikis. The spurt in the use of wikis saw commercial versions of the tool being offered.

The most widely used wiki software was SocialText, by a company by the same name. Based on the Kwiki software, it was one of the earliest enterprise wikis, and was available as a hosted service from the company's server, or as a package that could be installed on the client server.

Free, open source downloads of wiki software, too, were available. A few of them, such as MediaWiki, were customised to handle specific tasks including hosting video clips and audio files. Others such as Twiki and Kwiki could be customised to a large extent and worked much like a Content Management System. These tools, when installed on an office intranet, would be sufficient to take care of all resource management and knowledge management needs.

Wikis: The What And The Why
Now what exactly does a wiki do, and why is it beneficial to implement it on an office network? Putting it simply, a wiki is a tool that allows anyone to contribute, edit, and browse through content on a network or Web site. In layman's terms, a wiki can create a Web page for you without you having to fiddle around with any code. All you need to do is enter the required text after selecting the template format (just like in a blog), create links, and you have a site ready.

To create a new page or a link, most Wikis have an "Edit" or "Create" tab at the top. You click on this tab and enter the link name. Most wikis require you to enter the link as a WikiWord.

WikiWords are two or more words written in title case without any space between them, for instance, NewLink. The Wiki recognises these as links and no HTML is required to link to these words.

Alternatively, you can also use normal words and hyperlink it to the required URL. This however is just a roundabout way of doing things. Creating a link in Wiki using WikiWords is a two-step process. After you finish entering the link name in the template and saving it, you have created what is called a place holder. This is essentially a link to an empty page.

The Advantages Of Collaborative Tools 
Collaborative management tools facilitate and manage group activities. These include:
  • Electronic calendars (also called time management software)-schedule events and automatically notify and remind group members
  • Project management systems-schedule, track, and chart the steps in a project as it is being completed
  • Workflow systems-collaborative management of tasks and documents within a knowledge-based business process
  • Knowledge management systems-collect, organise, manage, and share various forms of information
  • Social software systems-organise social relations of groups
Collaborative software can be either Web-based, such as UseModWiki and Scoop, or desktop systems such as CVS or RCS.

These place holders (see screenshot on the right) are shown as a link with a question mark at the end. To convert them to full links all you need to do is click on them and type in the required text in the template provided. This converts the place holders to links like any other link on the Web. This ensures that adding a new section on a wiki or scheduling a new task which requires creating a new page is as easy as editing content. This mechanism of creating pages by using links makes sure orphan pages (pages that lead to and from nowhere) are not created.
Wikis For Free!
Name of Wiki              Website                                       Type  
TWiki                                Download from the Net
JotSpot                               Hosted on the Net
Xwiki                               Hosted on the Net
TiddlyWiki                 Hosted on the Net
Quake Wiki         Download from the Net
MediaWiki                 Download from the Net
SeedWiki                   Hosted on the Net

The links could be within the body of the text, or the section heads on your site could be links as well, just as with any regular Web site. Most wikis on the Web have a non-linear navigational structure, which means that the links to other areas in the wiki are found in the body of the text. This leads to massive cross-linkages, and can be too confusing at times.

In the case of an office wiki, however, a hierarchical navigational structure is preferred. This looks and acts in the same way as a Web site with sections and sub-sections.

Searching for content on a wiki is similar to doing so on any other intranet. Because of the nature of most wikis-that of being a repository or database of knowledge-search is a very important aspect. The basic search options of title search and full text search is the norm in most setups.

Newer search engines such as MetaWiki allow users to search across a number of wikis. This comes in handy if each department in your workplace were to have its own wiki.

Unlike regular intranets, which require a large amount of installation on the internal server, a wiki can run efficiently with minimal installation on a server or even on individual computers. The content in any wiki is stored on the server as plain text. This makes sure that very minimal server space is needed to store any data.

The wiki engine is the only code that is stored on the machine. The wiki thus acts as a very basic HTML server that translates plain text into a page that can be accessed over any network with all the required formatting. Because of this minimal use of hard-disk space, the wiki can be setup on any computer connected to a network and not just a server as with other Web sites. Thus the Wiki can be classified into two different types as per their installation: server-side wiki and client-side wiki.

Most establishments prefer a server-side wiki, as it makes sure the content is located on a central server and not spread across a number of terminals. Also, centralised handling and storage of content makes sure no data is lost if one of the local terminal crashes.

The most common operations on a wiki, such as editing and creating pages of content, and managing schedules including the control functions on a wiki page, are on the server. The engine that forms the core of the software-also called a wiki engine-renders the content in the same way a Web browser renders pages.

In a client-side wiki setup, individual computers act as servers, only the data files are located on the central server, which acts as a  database. All the execution needed to convert the wiki text into a normal display page is found in the browser used by each terminal.
Similarly, all the tools for creating, editing, saving and managing documents and schedules, or for taking any other action, are present in the browser as a plugin. Such plugins are available as downloads for most browsers such as Mozilla and Firefox; other browsers such as  Flock have these plug-ins bundled with the installation files.

This flexibility afforded by the application makes it highly customisable. You can decide where to host the application, depending on the size of the wiki and the number of users.

The Change Challenge
According to Cunningham, wikis are designed with the philosophy of making it easy to correct mistakes, rather than making it difficult to make them. The most common grouse against the use of wikis is also its biggest plus-anyone can open and edit or create a page in a wiki.

To keep vandals away and to verify the validity of an addition or editing, wikis provide for a 'Recent Changes' link. This gives a list of all the additions and changes done to a particular wiki within a certain timeframe.

Some wikis can also filter this list and remove minor edits as well as changes made to the document by bots that crawl the Web. This feature is very useful when your wiki is open to the Internet. A typical case would be for documentation of software or program development with developers strewn across the globe, as is the case with development of most open source tools and application software.

In addition to the 'Recent Changes' link, every wiki has a Revision History, which shows previous page versions, and where the differences between the two versions are highlighted. This enables any person accessing a particular page to make note of the change, and this comes in handy for processes that change frequently and need to be documented.

A regular wiki user can view the differences in an edit listed on the 'Recent Changes' page and, if something is an unacceptable edit, he can consult the history and restore a previous revision.

Apart from this, the tool has various other in-built customised filters, that provide high levels of content control. Some Wikis use login and password authentication and can thus track which user made changes and when. This type of Wiki is used in offices. Other tools include ones that monitor a page quality, and send alerts to the administrator whenever modifications are marked on a page. This feature is useful for pages that detail a particular method to do a process or to house case studies, where changes are not frequent.

The Collaborative Game
The biggest hurdle in implementing a tool like the wiki is convincing people about the feasibility of the software. Training and incentives are very important to get people accustomed to, and contribute to, the system. A major shift in the mindset of the company, however big, is necessary to implement the wiki; the move will have to be from corporate to co-operative.

The Easy Wiki Way
Wiki Syntax HTML Rendered Output 
A simple WYSIWYG format makes
typing out a text in a wiki so easy.
What are the advantages?
Using Wiki does away with the
cumbersome HTML codes.
A simple <em>WYSIWYG
</em> format makes typing out a text in a wiki so easy.
What are the advantages?
Using Wiki does away
with the cumbersome <em>HTML codes.
 A simple
WYSIWYG format makes typing
out a text in a wiki  so easy. What are the advantages?
Using Wiki does
away with the cumbersome HTML codes.

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