How to build an awesome intranet without spending a dime

Though e-commerce companies generally have the benefit of not being held to technology decisions made decades earlier, it only took Bill Me Later, a Web-based company (recently acquired by eBay), eight years to see its intranet and file sharing methods become pretty standard for the modern enterprise: that is to say, inefficient.

The company’s 350 employees were e-mailing around Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint attachments, losing track of which version was the most current, while major upgrades to the company intranet had to go through IT.

Troy Saxton-Getty, Bill Me Later’s VP of engineering, says after joining the company in May, he realized that the company was a prime candidate for a wiki. The company needed to make its intranet a user-generated central area for employees to collaborate on documents, share best practices and update vital company information about customers.

He picked MindTouch, an open-source wiki that he had implemented at a real-estate firm, where he says employees experienced similar collaboration challenges.

“You need to replace the ‘x’ drive or a ‘j’ drive or wherever these documents have been hanging out for years, and only one or two admins in the company know where to find everything,” he says. “This paradigm is almost twenty years old at most companies.”

Seed it Right

To grow the new intranet, Saxton-Getty started with a core group of 50 people representing each department.

A big reason he touts MindTouch: unlike other wikis, it’s very user-friendly to non-technical users, Saxton-Getty says. He felt confident that all his early adopters could handle using it with minimal training.

That simplicity starts with the process for contributing content, he says. Because the wiki requires no HTML experience for users, and it works on a What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor, the users could make themselves bio pages detailing their expertise.

Once staffers got comfortable with the tool, they began expanding their use of it, Saxton-Getty says.

“Once we got these early adopters using it, pretty soon they were saying, ‘why can we make a group page, and after that, why can’t we make a departmental page?” he says.

Because MindTouch offers users the ability to take information on their intranet and combine data together – a Web 2.0 term known as a “mashup” – pretty soon users were able to mix financial information with, say, scheduling and calendars.

Another key to making the wiki successful: seed it with some information to get people interested in using it. This has been viewed by analysts and other implementers of social software within the enterprise as very important. Though successful wikis are driven by users who update it with information that it’s important to them and their colleagues, to get a baseline of engagement you need to have something in there to start.

One place to start? Saxton-Getty encouraged IT to put their project list online, in an effort to lead the way in making information throughout the company more transparent. If people wondered about their technology requests with IT, they no longer needed to send an e-mail and hope for a response – it was right there.

Progress grew from there. Bill Me Later’s main business is providing an expedited check out process for other e-commerce sites. When it comes to managing clients, Saxton-Getty says, a lot of presentations and other useful content has been put into a wiki.

He also says users were happy to see this information become more engaging than a textual Office file – since MindTouch allows you to upload videos, photos and audio as well.

Another example of what a wiki could change for you? Think busy work.

“People would ask me for status reports of what I’m doing,” Saxton-Getty says. “I don’t give status reports ever. If you want a status report, go to the wiki. It’s there. My to-do list is there. Why should I email the same information to you, and you, and you?” he says.

Much like MindTouch there are several other free Web 2.0 offerings which help users who are new to wikis get their feet wet without installing software on a computer.

Let’s take a look at a four more of them:

1. Google Sites (part of Google Apps)

Where it came from: The Google Sites wiki 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.

Getting started: 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.

Ups: 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. 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 that were made, you can revert to an earlier form).

Easy admin controls that allow you to make someone an administrator (who has the ability to create and terminate 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.

Downs: 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. Pretty stingy considering Google’s big server farms we always hear about.

2. Socialtext

Where it comes from: Since its founding in 2002, the Socialtext wiki has been in the business of bringing social software such as wikis to the enterprise.

They don’t make their money off ads, so the free version of Socialtext (up to 5 users) is more or less a way for them to show businesses it is worth their time and money to sign up for their enterprise version that supports more users and contains more features.

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

Ups: Wikis do very well at providing users with context for the content their reading and consuming, and Socialtext is very good 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. Ability to tag content for easy discovery later on.

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.

Downs: 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. Wiki: Wikispaces

Where it comes from: Wikispaces is a three-year-old San Francisco start-up that focuses on hosting wikis for everything from businesses to schools.

Getting started: Pretty easy. Go to and a light green sign up box can be found in the right corner.

Ups: 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.

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

4 Wiki: PB Wiki

Where it comes from: Since grabbing its first round of funding in 2006, PB Wiki has been hosting wikis for schools and companies such as AT&T, Citi and Cisco (see these examples on the company’s home page).

Getting started: Go to and click on the red button that says “create a wiki.”

Ups: 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.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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