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Why Wikis Are Conquering The Enterprise

There used to be just one wiki known to all: Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that embraced user-generated content and its rejection of hierarchy.

Chief among the principles of Wikipedia is that everyone can be an expert.

In its simplest form, a wiki is a Web page that can be edited or created through a browser and linked to other Web pages.

Unlikely as it may seem, wikis are now being adopted by enterprises large and small more quickly than celebrities adopt African orphans.

So much so that Gartner analyst Kathy Harris predicted that by 2009, 50 percent of U.S. companies will be using wikis.

That helps explain why vendors large and small are lining up to provide enterprises with enterprise-ready wiki solutions.

Large outfits, such as IBM  and Microsoft  , are wrapping wiki functionality into their real-time collaboration tools, respectively Lotus Sametime and Sharepoint Server.

Smaller vendors like Jotspot, Socialtext, CustomerVision and Klir Technologies are among the vendors offering stand-alone wiki solutions.

Rather than being driven by senior management, however, adoption is coming mainly from project managers and department-level executives.

"In almost every big corporation, some group is already using a wiki," said Andrew McAfee, associate professor of technology and operations management at the Harvard Business School.

One reason is that wikis hold the promise of helping companies stimulate more innovation by their employees.

That's important: 80 percent of CEOs see collaboration as being critical to growth, according to a survey conducted by IBM last March.

Jeff Nolan, the former head of venture capital at enterprise software vendor SAP , agreed that enterprises are struggling to find ways to stimulate innovation.

"Large enterprises are at the barrier of how they can create new ideas," he told internetnews.com.

Nolan spearheaded SAP's investment in Socialtext.

Charles Hill, Lotus lead designer for social computing at IBM, said wikis are an ideal tool for supporting a group that's trying to get on the same page about a project.

People involved in the project can add pages to the wiki or edit existing pages.

Some enterprise wiki solutions also allow users to attach documents, generate blogs, RSS  feeds and even transform wiki pages into e-mails.

Others allow users to create pages in formats familiar to office workers, like spreadsheets and to-do lists.

Enterprise wikis also feature some levels of access control and other security features unheard of in public wikis.

But companies should avoid the temptation to be overly controlling, noted Jotspot CEO Joe Kraus.

"You want to be restrictive when it comes to keeping information inside the four walls of the company. Within the company, you want to be more liberal than not," he told internetnews.com.

Wikis also help address another problem companies have struggled with for years, which is how to collect and retain knowledge that is in people's heads or in unstructured documents like e-mail.

Previous so-called knowledge-management solutions have foundered because people are loathe to spend time thanklessly regurgitating their experiences into some knowledge repository for the good of the company.

Wikis, on the other hand, are a more natural way for people to explain their thought processes and get kudos along the way.

"Wikis provide a social incentive to share knowledge," Socialtext CEO Ross Mayfield told internetnews.com. "People don't like filling in forms, but they enjoy telling stories about their day."

In time, noted McAfee, enterprise wikis will also become more closely integrated with existing systems and workflows.

He also suggested that there would be value in allowing people to contribute to the wiki anonymously.

"Sometimes I want to know what you think if I don't know who you are."