Wikis are websites for which the content is provided by the website’s users, rather than by the owner/publisher. Any wiki user can edit or add to the existing wiki content, making this a truly bottom-up resource. Wiki software provides a simple interface whereby wiki pages cam be edited using either a simple markup language called wikitext or, more commonly now, a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editor along the lines of a simple word processor.
The most popular example of a wiki is the Wikipedia, an online encyclopaedia for which all of the articles have been contributed by enthusiastic volunteers. Although the Wikipedia’s users run into hundreds of millions, something like 10,000 people have contributed the content. This is not unusual in web collaboration, where the 90:9:1 rule is said to apply, i.e. for every 100 users, 1 sets up the resource, 9 comment on and refine the resource, and the remaining 90 consume what is produced. Having said that, there are some indications that next generation learners, i.e. those under 30, will be more active in their use of collaborative tools.
There are many varieties of wiki software, some stand-alone packages, some incorporated into more general collaborative tools and virtual learning environments. Because wikis have many uses beyond learning, the decision on whether or how to deploy wikis within the work environment is likely to be made at the enterprise level, with the dominant input coming from the IT department. However, as an l&d professional you still have an important role in affirming the value of wikis for learning and knowledge sharing, and in helping to encourage their use.
Because wikis are so simple in concept and in operation, they make ideal resources for on-demand learning, particularly in the form of online reference guides. A good example of wikis in practice is the Pfizerpedia at biomedical and pharmaceutical company Pfizer. As of November 2008, the application had more than 4500 articles, of which 3,300 had received more than 1000 hits. Since its inception two years previously, there had been more than 10m page views and 79,400 page edits. Nokia uses wikis to coordinate its technical research; IBM has more than 20,000 wikis which it uses for everything from project collaboration to software development; more than half of all employees at investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort are active wiki users. At Janssen-Clag, the whole intranet is now based on a wiki, although they never use the term. They say: “People shouldn’t know or care that they are using a wiki. All that matters is that they can easily browse, search and contribute content.”
The most common objection to the use of wikis is that, because there is no control over the content, the quality of information will be unreliable. There is, of course, some risk of this, although the quality of content can be monitored and content can be easily ‘rolled back’ to an earlier, more reliable version. On the whole, though, organisations report few problems with content quality and there is some evidence to believe that the peer review process, which is integral to wikis, leads to higher quality than expert-produced material.
Stewart Mader provides some good advice on how to kick-start the use of wikis: “To successfully grow your wiki into a collaboration and knowledge hub in your organisation, the best way to start is with a grassroots, or bottom-up strategy. To start grassroots adoption, start with a pilot in which a set of groups is given early access to the wiki to start building their collaborative spaces. Along the way, they can be advised and nurtured by a wiki champion to help make it as successful as possible, and this process can be documented to show future benefits of wiki use.”
- at their best when management places trust in its employees to use wikis responsibly, when the initiative grows from the bottom-up, when new users are provided with templates and guidelines;
- best avoided when editorial control is too strict, when they are implemented but not supported.
Wikipatterns by Stewart Mader, Wiley, 2008