A wiki can be an awesome tool to quickly access work-related information, events … and collaborate with colleagues. So how do you go about creating and using a wiki that lets you do all these things. Here’s a quickie primer.

Wonderful wiki tools that help you work better, faster

Does your staff need quick access to work related data or events and process updates?

Do your clients crave an online connection to your company to check a transaction status or just let you know what they think?

If these are some needs your organization needs to address, you may benefit from setting up a wiki. And to help you do that here’s a quickie primer.   

“Whether it’s internal communication or external client outreach, many small and mid-sized firms and even government agencies are finding wikis to be a valuable tool,” according to Nelson Ko, founder and CEO of Citadel Rock Online Communities Inc.

Citadel is a Toronto-based company providing  online collaboration and social media services. 

Ko was a presenter at the recently concluded Social Media Week  series of events in Toronto. His presentation was titled: Why Wiki and How.

Essentially a wiki is a Web site that enables the collaborative creation, editing and sharing of online content through a Web browser.

The term was taken from the Hawaiian word “wiki” (literally meaning fast), which was used to name a Hawaiian airport shuttle bus.  

Though now commonly associated with the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the word was originally used by Ward Cunningham in 1995, when he developed the first wiki software, WikiWikiWeb – then described as a “the simplest online database that could possibly work.”

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Why wiki

Quick, easy, and online are three words that best describe the ideal wiki, says Ko.

Traditionally people within an organization communicate verbally, by phone or through memos. In recent years, the process was sped up by e-mail but the technology lacks certain key features essential to providing a dynamic database of information for user, said Ko.

For instance, e-mails are real-time tools but aren’t primarily designed for collaborative work. “You write an e-mail and send, and wait for your receiver to respond.”

“It’s difficult to scale the conversation or broadcast information to a larger audience,” he said.

Anyone who has attempted to scroll down through an e-mail string knows how difficult it is to get a sense of who said what or what decision was finally arrived at.

The medium is also ill suited for learning of training purposes. Many corporate processes, for instance, would be deemed unwieldy if embedded into an e-mail.

By contrast, a wiki isn’t real time, but designed to contain and categorize information as well as track changes.

That’s preferable to capabilities on most Web sites, which typically don’t support anything more than the most rudimentary user comments or e-commerce transactions, said Ko.

“If users want to update information on the site, they can’t just log on and edit existing material or type out new stuff.”  

Yet many organizations require just that functionality.

It was the need faced by Anthony Palma’s team.

Palma is research facilities coordinator at the University Health Network. Palma was one of the attendees at Ko’s presentation.

“Our personnel needed a site where they could access the latest information about developments and processes within our department and those of other departments we were working with,” he said.

To distribute the latest information, users would need to be given the authority to post entries themselves or to edit existing ones that need to be revised.

A typical Web site would not have been able to provide this flexibility, said Palma.

Since launching a wiki some three years ago, Palma’s department has been able to facilitate faster communication within their immediate group.

“If somebody needs the latest information about a project we’re working on, it can easily be accessed on the wiki. If changes need to be made, that can be easily accomplished just as if the user were writing a blog.”

One notable benefit of the wiki is that when key personnel are absent, relevant information about their project is always available on the wiki for team members to access, Palma said.

How to wiki

Organizations can go to solution providers such as Citadel Rock for help in setting up a wiki. But there are also free online tools that many businesses can access. They include:

1. Google Sites (part of Google Apps)

Google Sites was built upon Google’s acquisition of Jotspot, one of the companies that realized early on wikis had a future as a technology for the workplace.
Signing up merely requires a Gmail account. When you sign into Gmail, click on the “More” tab and then “Sites” and you’re into the app. You will be prompted to “create site” and you’ll be able to decide rather quickly how you want to arrange things as they give you a few templates to choose from. A good starting off point is the web page view.

Pros: You can have as many users as you want, and you can make the site publicly accessible if you wanted to take it beyond the corporate walls.
This is a very easy editing tool that looks largely like what you’d use in your e-mail program, or a basic word processor. Like all the wikis mentioned here, you don’t need to know how to write software code.
It’s easy to embed video, links and other forms of media. There is great version control (so that if you don’t like changes made, you can revert to an earlier form).
Easy admin controls allow you to make someone an administrator (who has the ability to create and close sites), collaborators (who can work within sites), and viewers (who can merely look at what’s being done but can’t edit). The ability to draw from Google Gadgets (a collection of widgets offered for iGoogle, such as a map or a stock ticker) is also nice.

Cons: No real mobile app to speak of. No offline mode. Though there are no ads to look at now, that could change as Google reserves the right to put ads on its consumer apps. Only 100 MB of storage per site – that’s pretty stingy considering Google’s big server farms we always hear about.

2. Socialtext
Since its founding in 2002, Socialtext has been in the business of bringing social software, such as wikis, to businesses. They don’t make money off ads, so the free version of Socialtext (up to five users) is more or less a way for them to show businesses it is worth their time and money to sign up for an enterprise version that supports more users and contains more features.

Go to Socialtext’s customer login page and click on “get your own free Socialtext wiki.”

Pros: Wikis do well at providing users with context for the content their reading and consumption, and Socialtext shines in this regard. You can embed content from within the confines of a social software environment (such as another wiki page or blog) as well as areas of the public Web.

As an example, you can embed Google search results and RSS feeds rather easily by clicking on the “insert” drop down menu. It has good mobile access and the ability to take a wiki offline. If you’re enamored enough by Socialtext’s wiki, and want to expand your social software usage, the company also now gives you platform in which to create a blog.

Cons: While the editing tool allows for someone to post with no coding experience (just like Google Sites), it’s not as pretty looking as the Google Sites text editor and has fewer options around font types. It’s only free for only up to five users.

3. Wikispaces

Wikispaces is a three-year-old San Francisco start up that focuses on hosting wikis for everything from businesses to schools. Getting started is pretty easy. Go to wikispaces.com and a light green sign up box can be found in the right corner.

Pros: The free version of Wikispaces doesn’t have any limit for the amount of users and offers 2 GB of storage.

The WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) editor is cool in that you can move it around the page to where you like it best. One elegant feature allows users to embed widgets (such as a YouTube video) very easily and have it appear nicely on the page. A “history” tab allows you not only to list previous versions but to compare them as well.

Cons: No mobile access and they’ve got to pay the bills, so they might serve up some ads along side the application.

4. PB Wiki

Since grabbing its first round of funding in 2006, PB Wiki has been hosting wikis for schools and companies such as Citi and Cisco. To get started, go to pbwiki.com and click on the red button that says “create a wiki.”

Pros: PB Wikis recently released a new version of their wiki that provides a good starting off point for someone with no wiki experience.
It simply has two tabs at the top: “view,” which would be like a read-only form, and “edit,” to make changes/edits/deletions. You can backup your wiki offline if you’re worried about something happening to it.

The “Insert PlugIn” button in the text editor allows you to add content like the other leading free wikis. It includes the ability to add video (such as YouTube) and Google Gadgets.
You can also upload views of key productivity apps, such as a calendar or spreadsheets. While most wikis rely on tagging and search as their primary ways of discovery (which it has), PB Wiki helps you bring the old fashioned folks into the fold with optional folders. Like Google Sites, it has a nice selection of fonts.

Cons: Only free for up to three users.

Best wiki practices

Before creating a wiki, Palma frosaid organizations need to determine who the intended audience is and what user needs will it serve. For instance, will the wiki be open to the public, open only to key customers, just company users or only certain departments within the company.

Companies must also decide if the wiki is going to be a learning tool, a broadcasting tool, a marketing tool or a combination of any of the three.

Ko of Citadel said a good wiki always tells users what the tool’s purpose is and then highlights some form of “call to action.”

He said the “enter” button should be highly visible. Invitations such as “add content”, “edit content” or opportunities to provide help or volunteer on a project should be clearly marked as well.

If there are several topics, issues or instructions contained in the wiki, this could be set off by a “Learn about” button.

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