Over the last few years the use of wikis has become really popular. For every wiki evangelist I have met, I have also come across

as many who hate wikis. I’ve used them extensively and I too have gone through

a love-hate relationship with the wiki. I’ve probably used wikis for most of

the common applications:

Having recently done some work on the href="http://wiki.evolt.org/wiki/Main_Page">evolt.org wiki, I decided to

write down some of my thoughts about why sometimes wikis are phenomenally

successful, and others just never seem to work.

Like a lot of similar issues, none of this is rocket science.

(This is not meant to be a history of the wiki; if you want to know more

about wikis go to the Wikipedia


Where can a wiki go


The answer to the above question is in lots of ways! I’ve categorised these


However, there is an inter-relationship between

these, inasmuch that a failing in one area results in failings in other areas.

Nonexistent or inappropriate content

For a wiki to be successful, like any other website, it

needs content. Not just any old content, but content appropriate to the aims of

that particular wiki. I’ve seen bare bones wikis chucked over the wall at a

group people who have been told to use it and who, unsurprisingly, have ignored

it. My approach is to spend a little time in putting some outline structure on

the initial wiki and add some sample documents so that users understand how it

should be used.

An example is a professional community portal wiki where I

was a user. The aim of the portal was as a reference site to assist with

professional and career development within this particular company’s

organisation. The idea being that it would promote a sense of community and users

would be able to look at job vacancies, find out about training courses, and ask

questions in various forums. It didn’t work. Once you got past the fancy front

page, many of the links lead to pages that were under construction,

or held out of date, and even incorrect information. Initially, there were a

few comments added to a few pages, but these rapidly became Hello, is

anybody there


Sometimes wikis are wildly successful, with lots of content,

and then suddenly the usage drops. Often the cause of this is that there is

just so much content, and so many links and pages, that the information you want

can’t be found. OK, there are search engines in the wiki, but these often aren’t

sophisticated enough to be of much use.

Now, all of the above is not unique to wikis, but just as

applicable to any website. The trouble is that people have been told that this

fantastic wiki thing will solve all their problems, and when it doesn’t

deliver, it’s that wiki that gets blamed.

Too much complexity

A wiki should be simple to use and navigate, and should grow

organically. Most of the successful wikis I have seen have used simple open

source products, with a lightweight structure put in place to organise the

information, and with lightweight moderation to manage the site.

One of the unhappiest wiki experiences I have had was when the

company I worked for bought an Enterprise Wiki product. It was a great product,

but it had an orchestra of bells and whistles that you could use to enhance

the wiki experience
. We were using it for documentation and we had a

globally dispersed team, centred on a small UK based core who would write the

bulk of the content, and the other folk around the globe could edit the pages

to add in the text for their part of the project. In theory this should have

worked well, but for the fact that the manager who ran the site was a

techy and used every possible gadget in a set of templates embedded

within other templates, that made editing anything a complete nightmare, even

for the wiki-literate. The rest of the team did not stand a chance of getting

to grips with it and as you might expect did not add content to the wiki. The

target did users did not use it either, because it was either incomplete, or out

of date. It looked pretty, though.

So the moral of this, is KISS.

Managing the wiki community

Understanding, and educating the target community for the wiki is really important.

Some basics:

Corporate control

I worked for a large global company that has a massive intranet.

It had an enterprise wide product licences for Content

Management and also Document Management, all controlled centrally and there were corporate edicts that thou shalt use them - or else. Unfortunately there were huge bureacratic hoops to jump through to even start using them, and when you did they were real pigs to use.

Suddenly wikis started popping up all over the intranet, and these were being very successfully used instead of the approved corporate tools. So Corporate Central does a software evaluation exercise, buys an enterprise wide wiki product license and gets a

contractor to install it. An edict is sent out saying

that all wild wikis must move onto the corporate wiki farm and henceforth only the corporate wiki product should be used. So what happened next?

It eventually all got sorted out, but many previously happy people, spit when they hear the word, wiki. I suppose, if there is a moral here, it is beware unnecessary corporate control. What was a quite successful community of open source

wikis being run for little cost,

suddenly morphed into a multi-million pound project, managed by corporate edict, and by people who missed the fundamental idea behind a wiki. What's the Hawaiian for cock-up?