The Power of Collaboration

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A quote that I stumbled on during grad school stuck with me. From the story of the elder’s box as told by Eber Hampton, it sums up my philosophy of working and teaching:

“How many sides do you see?”
“One,” I said.

He pulled the box towards his chest and turned it so one corner faced me.
“Now how many do you see?”
“Now I see three sides.”

He stepped back and extended the box, one corner towards him and one towards me.

“You and I together can see six sides of this box,” he told me.

—Eber Hampton (2002) The Circle Unfolds, p. 41–42

Creating a Learning Resource with Aboriginal Students

My graduate school thesis project was to create a learning resource for an Aboriginal literature course for Aboriginal students at the University of Alberta. This effort was an interesting challenge since it involved me—a non-Aboriginal designer—trying to design for Aboriginal students from multiple cultural backgrounds.

While navigating the expected cross-cultural design issues, I met some wonderful people and learned a great deal about the importance of letting those with whom you design guide the research and design process.

This daunting task left me more than a bit intimidated at the end of the day. However, I felt from the outset that if I took the time to get to know my design partners and if I took the time to examine how they could guide me, somehow we could be successful.

Continue reading The Power of Collaboration

Content Strategy — in 3D!

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For centuries, the well-heeled Christian faithful in Europe made pilgrimages to Jerusalem, but most couldn’t afford these expensive and dangerous trips. In the fifteenth century, monks met the demand by setting up shrines along the roads. Together, these shrines told the Passion story, so that the faithful could take the same trip in miniature, at home. In the seventeenth century, these shrines moved inside the churches, becoming the modern Stations of the Cross.

The church had met a design challenge by constructing a narrative in an environment that advanced its messaging goals and met the goals of its audience. As the visitor moves from illustration to illustration depicting the famous trials and tribulations, they are moved both physically and emotionally.

Continue reading Content Strategy — in 3D!

Case Study of Agile and UCD Working Together

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Large scale websites require groups of specialists to design and develop a product that will be a commercial success. To develop a completely new site requires several teams to collaborate and this can be difficult, particularly as different teams may be working with different methods.

This case study shows how the ComputerWeekly user experience team integrated with an agile development group. It’s important to note the methods we used do not guarantee getting the job done. People make or break any project. Finding and retaining good people is the most important ingredient for success.

Continue reading Case Study of Agile and UCD Working Together

Google, Stanford, and The Government Fight Swine Flu

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Bolt | Peters recently collaborated with a team at Stanford University on designing the Google Sites template for local governments to use as a backup to deliver information on the H1N1 outbreak, and also disasters and emergencies in general. The goal was to create a template that was well laid-out, easy for non-techie local governments to edit and update with content, and conveyed the most important information to different audiences.

Swine Flu info template


How It Started: The Quick Fix

With the recent outbreak of H1N1, Santa Clara County’s official public flu information site was taken down by the surge in web traffic. To help relieve the demand, the Stanford SIE Program, a Stanford University group that develops technology for social change, stepped in literally within hours of the interruption to create an ad hoc backup site using Google sites, so people could still access the critical info.

This is the version of the site they originally posted, using Google Sites’ standard WYSIWYG editing tools:

Stanford's original stopgap design
Stanford’s original stopgap design

After the site went live, Stanford trained the Santa Clara County maintain it and add their own information. Santa Clara County needed to have site that could handle the traffic and get the information out as quickly as possible—which is to say that there wasn’t a whole lot of time to think about design.

This experience made it clear that it would be valuable to create a well-designed, easy-to-edit template for local governments to distribute information in case of emergencies—not just H1N1, but any public hazard, including floods, earthquakes, wildfires, and so on.

The team contacted us in late October with the original draft of the website. Since it was important to make the site available as soon as possible to deal with the ongoing H1N1 outbreak, so the timeline we had for design recommendations was really brief—just a few days. With that in mind, we got to work.

Spotting the Problems

Because of the layout restrictions, our design evaluation focused primarily on information design. We had two main issues with the early design, along with a handful of usability tweaks here and there.

First draft of Google template

1. Lack of visual hierarchy.

With two columns of equal width and mostly indistinguishable boxes filled with text, it was hard to tell at a glance what information was urgent, time-sensitive, or recently added.

Big chunks of info, no

The info wasn’t grouped into meaningful categories—there wasn’t much visual or spatial distinction between contact info, prevention info, calls to action, and so on, making it difficult to zero in on information even if you know what you were looking for. Also, the info came in big blocks of unscannable prose, and deep reading is the last thing you want to do when you’re trying to learn about the tsunami headed your way.

3. It didn’t anticipate the distinct needs of the most critical user

There was plenty of good info on the site, but it was never clear who a given piece of info was for—you couldn’t scan the page headers and think, “Yeah, there’s what I’m looking for”. Instead it had a “general audience” feel to it; the info didn’t take into account that different groups might have different needs and different levels of urgency.

4. Buried info.

Vital info on vaccines, symptoms, and SMS / Twitter updates was absent from the front page entirely, lurking deep in the navigation.

Our Recommendations

To keep editing simple for the local government end-users who would be using the template, we had to stick to using the WYSIWYG Google Sites editor, which meant no custom CSS and very little control over layout. We also had literally a single day to make our recommendations and synthesize them into a first-draft mockup—the result wasn’t pretty, but got our main info design recommendations across loud and clear.

First revision of template
Our first stab at redesigning the H1N1 template

Redesign Goal #1: Prioritize information according to the urgency
of visitor need.

Our design takes into account that there are different “general public” user segments with different goals, and that there are tiers of urgency and priority. From most-to-least urgent, we identified these segments:
* People infected with the flu: Immediate help / contact info
* People worried that they might have the flu: Self-diagnosis
* People concerned about catching and/or spreading the flu: Preventative measures and vaccine info)
* People just curious, staying informed: Information about travel restrictions, public response, news updates, deep flu info

The structure of the site was altered to serve each of these segments:
# We added a page-width alert box that would be displayed to convey urgent, time-sensitive info—this is a common feature on many of Google’s sites, as well as
# A yellow-shaded box to give the highest priority group, currently affected individuals, clear instructions on what to do.
# The left-column contains info on self-diagnostic and preventative measures for at-risk or concerned individuals.
# The top-right contains info on vaccines; below is links to deep info, research, and update notifications. Though the Google Sites template didn’t allow us to resize the right column, we noted that it should be made smaller than the left column.
# The left sidebar navigation was reserved for redundant quick links to most important info, as well as links to pages for specially affected individuals and organizations.

Redesign Goal #2: Reduce block text down to easy-to-scan lists
and chunks.
Cut the bureaucratic BS.

We broke down the block text to keep from overwhelming users with too much difficult-to-scan information upfront. Lists were kept to under 8 items long, unless they broken down into categorized sub-lists; text was kept under five lines. All information that couldn’t be condensed in this way was moved to lower-level pages, and linked from
higher-level pages.


Users don’t need to know what the mission statement and goals of the organization are; they just want to know if and how they are personally affected, and what they can do in case they are affected.

Redesign Goal #3: Use informative headers that directly address
user goals, and which give all users clear next steps.

All types of visitor (e.g. directly affected, at risk, concerned, just curious, administrative, medical, etc.) should be able to tell by the header if that information is “for them”. We tweaked the headers to make it clear what kind of info you could find in each section. We also made it clear what, if anything, each user segment needed to do:
* Immediately affected individuals are given step-by-step instructions on how to deal with their
emergency situation(s).
* At-risk individuals are given step-by-step information on preventative, precautionary, and self-
diagnostic measures.
* Individuals seeking non-urgent information can be given supplementary external information
resources (by phone, online, and downloadable / printable) and means to stay updated (by email,
text, RSS, Twitter).
* Urgent contact info is immediately visible in the right sidebar.

The First Revision

After we sent over our recommendations and mockup, a member of the team sent us a nice note a day or two later:

You’ve convinced us that we have to completely rethink and redesign the site from scratch, so
your style guidelines come at a very good time. I can’t thank you enough for opening our eyes to
how we can do this in a much better way. I think we can create a site that works much better than
the original site.

…and then a few days after that, Stanford sent a revised version over to Google, who worked with the design firm OTT Enterprises to create two new designs with some added visual design flourishes.

Unfortunately we don’t have permission to show you this revision yet (working on it), but it wasn’t bad—certainly cleaner and better organized, easier to scan, less dense. There was, however, a large distracting green gradient background, some empty space in the sidebar columns, a few stock photos, and a muddled color palette (green, blue, yellow, and gray).

Our second batch of suggestions focused mostly on visual design and layout. Just a few of them:

Visual Design

* Get rid of the gradient background; it’s distracting and confuses the emphasis on different parts of the site, since it runs behind multiple different elements.
* Get rid of the green coloring, which is tertiary to the blue and yellow. Instead, use several shades of blue as the primary color and a little light beige or light grey as a secondary trim. Blue signifies authority, calmness, trustworthiness, etc., which are of course appropriate here. Notice how almost every major government agency’s website (including the CDC) uses dark blue and gray as the main colors.
* Remove the stock images, including the CDC and widget images, which look like ads. The phone and email icons are fine, however.
* Rather than images, make the content headers stand out with size and strong typography—”make the content the focus” is an old web design adage, and the content, in this case, is the flu information. Here are a bunch of sites that use typography, font size, whitespace, and bold layout to create emphasis, using few images [list of a bunch of websites].


* Header and upper-page content takes up way too much space—note that the important info (”If you or your child…”) doesn’t begin until more than halfway down the screen. Compress.
* I like how Design #2 places the alert and contact info in the sidebar; in Design #1 the sidebar is wasted space. This frees up space to move important info (Vaccine and How to Care for Someone With The Flu) up to the right side.
* This design consists mostly of links to deeper pages, but there’s definitely room to put more specific, useful info right on the homepage: symptoms, preventative measures, vaccine info (see our original design)
* Get rid of the Contents box.

The Results

Stanford started over once again, aided by our style guide and input from OTT Enterprises. After further iterations in Google Sites, they handed it over to the Google visual designers, and here’s the before-and-after:

Google Sites template, super rush draft

Google Sites Public Health Template 1.0

Can you do better?

As with all things on the web, the template is a design-in-progress, and will be improved as time goes on. Stanford SIE is looking for feedback on the design, so here’s where you can send feedback for the Public Health template and the All Hazards template. Since these Google Sites templates are available to everyone, you can even make your own design edits and mock up improvements.

Or if you just think it’s great and you just want to use it yourself, here’s the complete list of links:

Google Sites Templates blog post

Public health sites:

Example site
User guide

All hazard sites:

User guide
Stanford SIE site (we’re credited here!)

Note: Nate and Tony’s book on remote testing, “Remote Research”:, will be published by Rosenfeld Media in 2010.

Control and Community: A Case Study of Enterprise Wiki Usage

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The Balance of Power

There are a wide variety of uses for Wikis and a level of interest in using them that’s matched by an extensive range of Wiki software. Wikis introduce to the Internet a collaborative model that not only allows, but explicitly encourages, broad and open participation. The idea that anyone can contribute reflects an assumption that both content quantity and quality will arise out of the ‘wisdom of the crowd.’

There are, however, negative effects of this extreme openness. One problem is the deliberate vandalism of Wiki pages. Another is that even those with no destructive intent may yet degrade the quality of a Wiki’s content through lack of knowledge or skill. Anyone can write nonsense as though it were fact. Anyone can accidentally delete useful information. Someone with half-baked knowledge of grammar may change all the “its” to “it’s.” Of course, someone more knowledgeable may notice the problem and fix it … but then again maybe they won’t.

Wikis can impose various forms of control to protect against these risks, including user registration, moderation, enforced stylistic rules, and imposing prescribed topic structures and page layouts. These types of control, however, are typically seen as contrary to the basic Wiki concept.

Consequently, one of the central tensions when managing a Wiki is between centralized control and anarchy. In the public arena, the balance of power tends towards anarchy, but in a corporate environment a more centralized approach is often required.

In this article I describe one application of the Wiki way to a common corporate process and extract some guidelines for the effective use of Wikis in that context. In particular, I am seeking insight from this case study into the “balance of power” tension.

The example on which these reflections are based is a project within the software company CorVu [1] to improve the technical knowledge base related to the products we sell. Like many companies, CorVu has extensive knowledge of its own products and a desire to make that knowledge available to customers. A major block to achieving that desire has been a lack of people with the time to either record the internal knowledge or to fashion the knowledge into a customer-ready format. We needed to spread the load so that a broad range of developers, tech writers, professional service consultants and others could all contribute what time and knowledge they had to a shared goal. Our hope was that a process built around several Wiki sites would facilitate this collaborative approach.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that lessons learned in that context will transfer to others. But without documented cases such as this one, any theorizing about the balance of power issue is just speculation.

Three contexts for a Wiki

To start with, it is important to clarify the key differences between three contexts in which Wikis are used: public, team and enterprise Wikis. [2].

Public Wikis

By a “public Wiki,” I mean one where any Internet user can read and contribute to the collaborative effort. It may be that editing content is restricted to a registered user group (as is the case with Wikipedia), but anyone can register. Consequently, the size of the contributing community is potentially huge, there is a high level of anonymity, and the contributors do not typically relate to each other outside the confines of the Wiki.

In this context, very little centralized control is evident. You typically find some explicit guidelines for contributors, either formulated by the founders/hosts, or as an evolving page edited by the contributors themselves. There is also an implicit understanding of etiquette and an implied social contract that comes with joining the “community.” But in the end, anyone can edit anything … and anyone else can un-edit it. This is the essence of anarchy: not that anything goes, but that what goes depends on peer acceptance. In an anarchy, it is not the case that there is no control; rather, the control is exerted by peers (around the edges) rather than by an authority (in the centre).

Requiring registration prior to participation does not alter the anarchistic nature of the process. Registration has numerous benefits, not least of which is that contributors can be recognized and gain respect for their contributions. Registration may also increase the sense of belonging because it reflects each contributor’s conscious choice to join the community. That sense of belonging is essential to any viable anarchy.[3]

Moderation, on the other hand, inevitably moves the balance of power towards the centre. Moderation invests some users with the power to limit the contributions of other users. While moderation is sometimes seen as necessary in order to combat vandalism and dissension, this imposition of authority denies the libertarian aspirations of most public Wikis.

Team Wikis

A “team Wiki” is one where the people who read and contribute all belong to the same team or work-group. Perhaps the R&D team uses the Wiki to record evolving product specifications; or the members of a local church collaboratively documents its history; or a class of students collates the results of a research project. Membership of the team predates and takes precedence over membership of the Wiki community. A person joins the team and as a by-product may be requested or required to use the Wiki. The number of people participating tends to be small and the contributors are likely to relate to each other outside the context of the Wiki.

In contrast to public Wikis, where self-selection guarantees that the vast majority of users are technically savvy and keen to be involved, the people contributing to a team Wiki may not be doing so voluntarily or with much enthusiasm. It may well be a required part of their work that they would prefer to avoid. The need to make the Wiki as easy as possible to use becomes even more important in this context. This includes clear navigation and an effective search function, but more than anything else it means a simple, familiar user interface for editing text. Many team Wikis fail simply because the potential contributors refuse to learn Wiki markup or to use a non-wysiwyg editor.

In this context, registration is essential, but moderation is not. The restrictions on who can contribute protect against vandalism and, because the collaborators have pre-existing relationships and a common commitment to a higher cause, the community operates with a trust model. In fact, apart from the restrictions on membership, a team Wiki is unlikely to impose much control at all over contributions. Standards, structures, and conflicts will be resolved using the organization’s normal processes outside the Wiki. The collaborators will discuss and vote, or demand and threaten, or just do what the boss says, without that process being explicitly controlled by mechanisms within the Wiki.

Enterprise Wikis [4]

When it comes to implementing Wikis across a large enterprise such as a global corporation, a new set of concerns affect the balance of power. Management wisdom is required to maximize participation while keeping business objectives clearly in sight.

In my experience, it is rare that a single Wiki site within an enterprise is open to contributions by any employee. Where this is the case, moderation is likely to be required because of the large numbers of contributors who have no direct accountability to each other. The concerns at the enterprise level relate to how numerous organizational Wikis within the enterprise can be integrated into the IT infrastructure and how the use of Wikis can most effectively support corporate goals.

Rather than allow the proliferation of diverse Wiki projects throughout the enterprise, IT management is more likely to select the Wiki software that everyone is to use and perhaps host all instances centrally. It may be that some IT managers are “control freaks,” but there are good reasons for standardizing on Wiki software:

  • Risk. If many work groups host their own Wiki using their own choice of software, there is a significant risk of knowledge loss. It is hard to guarantee that each work group will secure the Wiki adequately or ensure appropriate disaster recovery. What happens if the work group’s server dies? Will they have an adequate backup procedure? What happens if the work group’s IT expertise leaves the company? Will the knowledge of how to run the Wiki be passed on to the remaining team? What happens if the Wiki software no longer operates when the server’s operating system is upgraded? Centralized Wiki management can avoid such problems.
  • Support. Most Wiki software is easy to learn (at least to us!), but some are certainly easier to learn than others. In a context where many employees participate in multiple Wikis within the enterprise, training and user frustration can be reduced by using the same software for all the Wikis.
  • Cost. Centralized IT management can also reduce the total cost of ownership of Wiki projects. That may be counter-intuitive given that most Wiki software is free. But the costs of running a Wiki include the cost of the hardware that hosts the Wiki, the time it takes to manage the Wiki (installation, user admin and support, backup, etc.) and the time it takes to teach people how to use the system. Although these costs may be small for each work group, the total across the enterprise can be substantial, and can be reduced by standardization and centralization.

In this context, the balance of power swings inevitably towards centralized control. The challenge is how to do so without stifling the free and creative contributions that are essential to a Wiki’s success.

The CorVu case study

The company I work for, CorVu, started using Wikis within its R&D group back in 2000 using the original WikiWikiWeb software. The project described below was based on MoinMoin, but we have also used DoKuWiki and have since standardized on Confluence.

CorVu produces software that assists other enterprises to implement their strategy and to track their performance against that strategy over time. CorVu has a variety of channels for making its internal product knowledge available to its customers, but the product functionality grows at a faster rate than the Tech Writers can keep up with. Apart from the fundamental description of each feature, a complex assortment of configuration details need to be documented – performance optimization, best-practice implementation techniques, interactions with third-party software, etc. A lot of knowledge at that level resides with the Professional Services team rather than the Product Development team. Often, the people with the knowledge do not have the time nor the writing skills to record it, and the people with the responsibility to deliver documentation to the customers do not have the knowledge. There’s nothing uncommon about that problem!

Since the goal of capturing and disseminating quality technical documentation requires collaboration, I thought that a Wiki might help. So we set up two independent Wikis to capture knowledge from two different groups of employees, and a third so that customers could access a sanitized version of that knowledge.

I’m not putting my own case forward as the paradigm of success. In fact, although the project yielded a significant improvement in capturing internal knowledge, we have not yet achieved the final goal of effectively disseminating that knowledge to our customers.

Wiki Workflow Diagram

Figure 1. Knowledge capture and dissemination using three Wikis

R&D Wiki
This Team Wiki is the home of internal coding standards, design documents, etc. Anyone on the product development team can contribute, while employees in other departments can only view.

Services Wiki

The Professional Services Wiki (actually called the ‘Internal Technical Knowledge Base’) is a Team Wiki for recording how the product is used in practice, for instance: internal discussion about bugs, compatibility with third-party software, implementation tips and techniques, performance optimization, etc.

Anyone in the organization can edit this Wiki, but the primary contributors are Professional Service staff (consultants and help desk). This Wiki has two intentions: to be the primary location for recording and accessing internal product knowledge, and to be the staging ground for knowledge that can later be released to customers.

We centrally imposed the top level of structure and navigation here, based on product modules. This makes it easier for contributors to know where new content should be added. Specific pages enable FAQs to be built over time. Where it is relevant, information from the R&D Wiki is incorporated into this Wiki.

We scrapped a commonly used set of email distribution lists in favor of a process whereby questions and answers are posted to this Wiki site. This means that problem solving previously lost in email trails is now captured and searchable.

Customer Wiki
The Customer Wiki has the same basic structure as the Professional Services Wiki. That is, nearly all of the pages in the Professional Services Wiki have a matching page in the Customer Wiki. The difference is that the content in the Customer Wiki is edited by professional technical writers.

Each page of the Professional Services Wiki includes a status block indicating who the primary author was, who has checked the accuracy of the technical content, and who has checked spelling, grammar and adherence to the corporate documentation style. Only when those steps have been completed can the page be copied over to the Customer Wiki. An important part of that process is to make judgments about what information should be kept internal and what the company wants to reveal to its customers.

The Documentation Department is the only group who can edit the Customer Wiki. Although customers can leave comments, they cannot modify the published content.

In this project, there was a clear business goal and a centrally-driven process to attain that goal. The Professional Services and Customer Wikis were seeded with pages that provided a structure for delivering accurate and accessible content to customers. While the ability to contribute was widespread, there were explicit “rules of engagement” around user registration, topic naming, page layout templates, content categorization, and navigation.

Although there was a degree of central control, we tried to balance that with encouragement for broad-based collaboration–otherwise, why use a Wiki? The distinction that guides this balance is between structure and content. Although the structure is imposed centrally, content is generated by a diverse range of people in a way that promotes openness, the recognition of contributors, editing of any content without fear of criticism, and shared responsibility for quality.

Since the quality of the documentation exposed to our customers is crucial, the process includes a QA step that is uncommon for Wikis. We did not want to constrain all contributors to adhere to strict grammar, spelling and style rules. Instead we left the knowledge capture stage free from those restrictions and used technical writers to edit the content before its dissemination to customers.

It may seem strange that we would use a Wiki to publish non-editable information, but this is a testament to the versatility of the software. Wikis provide a very fast means of building a web site, whether collaboration is the intention or not. In our case, we use one Wiki site to capture knowledge from one group of people and another Wiki site to disseminate the information to a different group of people. With regard to my categorization of Public, Team and Enterprise Wikis, the “Customer Wiki” is a hybrid: it is built by a specific team and hosted within an enterprise infrastructure in order to publish in the public arena. A more traditional approach to software documentation would have been to repackage the knowledge into some other HTML or PDF format for customer consumption. But the maintenance of that dichotomy would have been far more onerous than copying between two parallel Wikis.

Managing an Enterprise Wiki project

Embedding Wiki tools across an enterprise is an organizational change project and as such requires appropriate planning and project management, along both technical and cultural dimensions. I won’t go over those generic processes, nor repeat suggestions for Wiki adoption that are documented in places like WikiPatterns. But drawing from CorVu’s experience, I will highlight some advice for project managers in the enterprise Wiki context.


  1. Seek patronage at the highest possible level. That is, find a person with as much power within the enterprise as possible who will sponsor the project. The sponsor may do no more than ‘give the nod’ to your work, but that invests you with the authority to draw on other people’s time. In CorVu’s case, the CEO himself was a key supporter.
  2. Enthuse a champion. This needs to be a person who is well respected, who will lead by example, and in doing so enthuse others. The champion will need to be able to put a lot of time into the project and will often be the primary contributor to the Wiki, especially at the beginning. In our case, that turned out to be myself.
  3. Identify the group of people who can be expected to generate the majority of the Wiki content. These are typically subject matter experts. Discuss with them the value of writing down what they know or Wiki-izing what they have already written.
  4. Identify anyone whose participation is mandatory. Is there a key political player or subject matter expert who absence from the project will cause others to think, “Well, if she’s not involved, I’m certainly not going to waste my time?”
  5. Since our goal was to create a knowledge base for external consumption, it was important that the content generated by subject matter experts was checked for both accuracy and readability in the same way as other customer documentation. Consequently, the people involved in the project needed to include professional technical writers.


There are many different Wiki software tools in the market (Wiki Matrix lists over 100) but most are not adequate for an enterprise rollout. CorVu’s experience suggests that an enterprise Wiki requires at least the following:

  1. Administration tools to manage a large number of users, with integration to enterprise security mechanisms (e.g. LDAP and single sign-on).
  2. Separately secured spaces for different knowledge areas.
  3. Effective management of attachments that includes versioning and a built-in search function that indexes the attachments.
  4. Integration with other enterprise software such as portals, business intelligence, and content management systems.
  5. Many contributors in an enterprise context will be non-technical. This makes it essential that the Wiki has a familiar, WYSIWYG editing mode rather than forcing users to learn some Wiki markup language.
  6. An assortment of non-functional requirements such as good reputation, reference sites, some assurance of product longevity, and the availability of support.

Generating participation

All Wikis stand or fall based on whether an active community is formed. You can’t achieve the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ unless you have an active crowd. The means of achieving that across an enterprise are somewhat different from public Wikis.

  1. Build a critical mass of contributors. Since the contributors are employed by the enterprise, it is possible to make the Wiki part of people’s responsibilities. At CorVu we found this to be imperative. Unlike a public Wiki (where there are many people who contribute huge amounts of time as a hobby), in a work context (where everyone is probably too busy already), this isn’t going to happen. So write it into job descriptions. Get managers to send emails to their staff saying that one hour a week should be spent writing up their knowledge on the Wiki. Arrange a seminar on how to use the system. Use the company newsletter to promote the value of the project.
  2. Build a critical mass of topics. To be used, the site must be useful. To generate traffic to the site, make the most frequently required information available on the Wiki first, and make the Wiki the only source for that information. In CorVu’s case, for example, one significant page stored the latest product release information. When any software version was moved from internal QA to Beta, or from Beta to General Release, this page was updated. Once people learn that the Wiki contains a lot of useful information they will look there for answers to start with rather than wasting someone else’s time by phoning or emailing questions.
  3. Send links rather than information. Set an expectation that when anyone is asked for some detailed information, the response should be a link to a Wiki page. If the information has not yet been Wiki-ized, don’t type a lengthy answer in an email; instead, spend an extra minute typing it into a Wiki page.
  4. Provide recognition and rewards. As with most Wikis, the best way to encourage participation in the long term is to ensure that the efforts of the contributors are valued. This is easier in team and enterprise Wikis than in public Wikis because the contributors are known. Wiki pages can indicate explicitly who the primary authors were. There can also be rewards within the enterprise beyond the boundaries of the Wiki. For instance, some employees may have components of their annual review linked to their involvement in Wikis.

The future of enterprise Wikis

Our experience with Wikis at CorVu has been very positive and gives encouraging signs about the future potential of this approach to shared document workspaces. There are multiple offerings that meet enterprise IT standards, and the tools currently available are robust, simple to administer, simple to use, and inexpensive. The CorVu case also shows that enterprise Wikis can be used not only for internal purposes, but also as a means of publishing information to external stakeholders.

By putting minimal central control in place an enterprise can gain significant benefit from this simple technology, including improved knowledge capture, reduced time to build complex knowledge-based web sites, and increased collaboration. Although enterprise Wiki use requires a greater degree of centralized control than public Wikis, this need not impinge on the freedom to contribute that is the hallmark of a Wiki approach. The balance of power is different in an enterprise context, but fear of anarchy should not prohibit Wiki adoption.

Nevertheless, I predict that Wikis will disappear over the next 5 to 10 years. This is not because they will fail but precisely because they will succeed. The best technologies disappear from view because they become so common-place that nobody notices them. Wiki-style functionality will become embedded within other software – within portals, web design tools, word processors, and content management systems. Our children may not learn the word “Wiki,” but they will be surprised when we tell them that there was a time when you couldn’t just edit a web page to build the content collaboratively.

[1] CorVu is now a subsidiary of Rocket Software, but this case study pre-dates that acquisition.

[2] There is another form of Wiki that I have ignored here – the personal Wiki – but in that case, questions about the balance of control do not arise.

[3] In an editorial comment, Christina Wodtke offered the insight that if identity is essentially disposable, then registration does very little. Perhaps it is only when the link between registration and identity is persistent that protecting one’s reputation becomes an important motivation towards good behavior.

[4] What I call an ‘Enterprise Wiki’ others have called a ‘Corporate Wiki’. I prefer the former because it is not restricted to corporations in the business world, but also applies to government agencies, churches, and large not-for-profit organizations.