Power ButtonReading a recent post on David Tebbutt’s blog – You calling me a consultant? – took me to: What’s the real value of social software in enterprise from Adriana Lukas, which leads us to this post…

My longest experience with business social software has been with wikis. I first used a Wikis in a businesses about ten years ago, and have now seen a number of projects across different companies. Case studies are still hard to come by, partly because introducing wikis touches on some sensitive issues. It is not just about the technology, it is about a cultural shift. In many command-and-control cultures information is (seen as) power, but social software moves people towards sharing it. That is a big change.

Be Careful What You Measure

The major benefits of wiki technology are tangential ones. As such they present challenges for metrics, but I have seen multi-million dollar roll outs of ‘traditional’ applications hit their metrics, but be a productivity disaster. Metrics cut both ways, and there is the risk of MacNamara’s fallacy:

“The first step is to measure whatever can easily be measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.”

The quote is from Charles Handy, but it came via wikipedia and I’ve already said enough about wikipedia research. The Adam Curtis BBC program ‘The Trap’ explored this topic well, if you have the chance to watch it, it is well worth it.

Measuring human systems, like users with a wiki, is non-trivial. You change what you measure, simply by measuring it. This is not to say that things shouldn’t be measured, but they should be measured with caution. It might sound a little trite, but there is truth in saying that the most valuable things are invaluable (or immeasurable).

Wikis are most successful when they are introduced while the company is still small and growing. That way they become part of the culture. Not to say that big businesses can’t be successful with wikis, but it requires a good training program around them. The only wiki-failures I have found were in very large companies, where the technology was introduced with minimal training and no clear objectives, and predictable results.

What are the major benefits of a wiki to a business?

These apply just as well to any form of social workgroup, not just to businesses. They also apply for groups of two to hundreds, but the scaling of wikis is a topic for another day.

Knowledge Availability

Wikis remove much of the chance factor in finding knowledge in the business. Most intranets contain woefully out of date information, through no fault of the intranet owners. Users are left to chance upon the right person who is ‘in the know’. Wikis also reduce the dependence on key knowledge workers for answers to common questions.

Even if the answer isn’t on the wiki, at least users can glean an idea of who to ask (based on who has been adding what to the wiki). This speeds up the business and offloads the burden on senior staff. This is especially important when you are in a hiring phase. No new hire pack? Search the wiki.

Change Control

Basic, but missing from so many information systems in common use. The ability to rollback and track changes is inherent in most wiki software. This can be a life saver and is why wikis are the enterprise CMS of choice for me.

Knowledge Permanence

Wikis are the most constructive and least disruptive way of documenting projects that I have found to date. If someone leaves, at least some of their knowledge remains within the organisation, on the wiki. The same is true for extended absence due to illness, travel or long holidays.

Knowledge Creation

Sparks come from striking two things together. The same is true with knowledge. I have watched brilliant ideas emerge in real-time on a wiki page, right in front of my eyes. Something new on the wiki combined with something someone already knows leads to new knowledge in the business, across multiple people.

Geographic Freedom

Wikis work across geographic boundaries and across time zones. That supports remote offices and remote workers on a global basis. This is key to keeping a business competitive. Water cooler chat is good, but it doesn’t scale across national boundaries.

Cross Platform Portability

Because wikis are web based, the only client required is a browser. That means wikis work across different operating systems and even for mobile devices like Blackberries and smart phones.

So, hopefully now you can see why I am a wiki fan.