Wiki use in corporate world has programming effect

Wikis could improve corporate collaboration, reduce network traffic and even help meet regulatory record-keeping requirements — someday — attendees at last month’s Interop keynote address were told.

“When you share control with users, you gain innovation,” said Ross Mayfield, CEO of wiki software vendor Socialtext, touting one potential benefit of the technology.

But before companies can reap any benefits they face a much more fundamental problem: How do you get people to start using a wiki in the first place, said Andrew McAfee, a Harvard Business School professor who co-presented the keynote. Wikis typically are collaborative Web sites that let users easily add, remove and edit content.

“You have to make it deadly simple and easy to use because the competition is e-mail where all you have to do to communicate is hit ‘send’,” he said.

Wikis could completely do away with blanket e-mails sent to entire departments or companies creating what Mayfield calls “occupational spam”. He says such spam represents a third of all e-mail.

Because wikis let anyone within the corporation participate, they can foster group decisions that are more innovative than those decided through closed processes, McAfee said. And because each time a wiki is changed it records a new version, it represents a document trail of how decisions are made.

“You can see exactly what happened and who did it. It’s a record of when you became aware of a problem and how quickly you reacted to it,” he said. Eventually, a secure corporate wiki might serve to meet regulatory compliance for keeping records of how corporate decisions were made. By reviewing the wiki, a regulator could determine that corporate decision makers followed rules, McAfee said.

A popular example of a wiki is Wikipedia, which started off as a project to create the world’s best encyclopedia in what was known as the Newpedia project. A wiki was used as a communication tool, but people also sent in encyclopedia entries that were as good as the formal submissions.

In a corporate setting, it would be a difficult management chore to figure out how to get users to participate and predictably come up with a solution to a business problem, McAfee said.

In the case of Wikipedia, nobody knew at the outset that that would be the result, McAfee said.

While wikis are not perfected for corporate use now, they still warrant development and use in corporations to see what they can produce, he said.

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