Why Wiki?

David Booth, Ph.D.
HP Software
  Suggestions are invited: david@dbooth.org

Latest version: http://dbooth.org/2007/why-wiki/
Views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of HP.


First of all, I'm going to assume that you are already familiar with what a wiki is and how they are used.  If not, and you have any involvement in IT decision-making, then you must learn more about them. For starters, read about wiki benefits, see Wikipedia and try the Wikipedia Sandbox

Some nice features of a wiki (asuming any good wiki engine):

Wikis are about increasing productivity

[See also BusinessWeek article: Corporate Wikis Go Viral]

Remember when companies were first adopting email, and IT departments were debating whether it should be a standard part of the corporate infrastructure?  A common objection was:
"Why do people need that?  Telephones and faxes work fine."

Remember when companies were first adopting instant messaging, and IT departments were debating whether it should be a standard part of the corporate infrastructure? Again, a common objection was:
"Why do people need that?  Email and telephones work fine."

The same objection has been made about every major communication or information sharing technology.  But each one serves its own sweet spot that allows us to improve our productivity by selecting the most appropriate mechanism for the circumstance.  Yes, people can and do compensate with other tools when the most appropriate tool is not available.  But the result is lost productivity.

Wikis, therefore, are about increasing our productivity, just as email, instant messaging, telephone and fax are.  Each one fills a communication and information sharing niche.  When the most appropriate mechanism for that niche is unavailable, we use others to compensate.  Every week we delay on providing corporate-wide, standard wiki software translates directly into lost opportunity for improved productivity.  Thus the key questions are:

Wikis versus web sites

Wikis are essentially a low cost, low barrier tool for information sharing.  All teams do information sharing internally, and most need to share information with other teams.  How do they compare with web sites?

Conventional web sites have tighter control over content, but this is also a substantial bottleneck that inhibits progress.  For example, due to cost cutting, in HP Software we now have the absurd situation that to make a simple change to a team web site, the requester must:
  1. figure out who owns the site (not always obivous);
  2. ask the owner for the change, whereupon the owner must:
  3. send a request to a web developer 12 timezones away;
  4. wait 48 hours for the change to appear;
  5. look at the change and notice that it isn't quite right; and
  6. go back to step 3 and try again. 
Compare that with instant updating on a wiki.

Web Thinking

Wikis also encourage web thinking -- giving documents URLs and linking and referencing information rather than copying and sending information -- which provides a much broader organizational benefit.  A very common means of information sharing currently is email.  But when documents are emailed around -- MS Word, PowerPoint slides, etc. -- there is enormous hidden cost.  The information sharing is fractured and inconsistent.  Only the email recipients get it, though of course it can be forwarded, in which case you have no idea who got it.  Good luck trying to find the latest version of the document, or even knowing whether a document that you still have in your saved mail is even applicable any more.  The email model of information exchange forces you to guess.  Compare this with wikis, which use the web model and URLs.  As a simple example, if you look at the top of this document you will see that it is trivial to know where you can find the latest version of it.

Wiki Versus SharePoint

The difference between wikis and sharepoint is that sharepoint sucks.

I'm at MSFT.  Our intranet is a sharepoint site.  Search on it is perpetually broken.  I can't find a damn thing; everything is haphazardly catalogued in a dozens of folders.  The documents are in every format under the sun -- but mostly powerpoints, which are invariable written in a fragmented, verbless style incomprehensible to mere mortals.  No one goes around updating old or out of date information.  Each page takes at least three seconds to load, maybe longer.
                     -- Alyosha, Wednesday, January 26, 2005

That's a bit extreme, but it does illustrate that Wikis and SharePoint are different, and hence best at different things.  SharePoints are better as shared file systems; wikis are better at aggregating and sharing information.   A wiki is like a free-form, common whiteboard, while a SharePoint lke a big pre-configured structure, that fragments the information into particular structures (lists, calendars, documents, etc.).  Wikis are much simpler to use -- a single interaction style.  Also, wikis work on any browser, any operating system.

The main point is not that wikis should replace anything else, but that wikis do what they do better than anything else, and productivity increases when people can use the most appropriate tool for the job.

Which wiki engine should you adopt?

Short answer: MediaWiki (the wiki engine behind Wikipedia) or another engine with the same user experience.

Why?  Everybody knows it.  Research anything and Wikipedia is likely to show up in the top 10 search results, and its prevalence is steadily increasing.  According to WikiCreole, in rankings of wiki engine popularity, MediaWiki is 94 times as popular as the runner-up (as of February 2007) and increasing.  This does not mean that MediaWiki is the best wiki engine by every criterion.  There are many good wiki engines available, and you may consider some better than MediaWiki depending on the criteria you choose.  But questions of feature comparisons miss the essential point that MediaWiki is fast becoming a de facto standard, by virtue of its enormous user base.  Thus, even though other wiki engines may gain popularity, because of Wikipedia's use of MediaWiki it is unlikely that MediaWiki will be displaced.  Far more likely is that MediaWiki will absorb the popular features of other engines.  MediaWiki is open source, highly proven, highly scalable, highly tested.  If there are any features it doesn't have today that you absolutely must have, then you can add them.

However, I should qualify this recommendation to note that from the user's perspective, it doesn't much matter whether the wiki engine you choose really is the MediaWiki engine or some other look-alike engine, as long as it presents the same user experience, i.e., the same rendering conventions and usage pattern.  So if another wiki engine presents a similar user experience but has additional features that you need, and it seems scalable, proven and robust enough, then I see nothing wrong with using that instead.

More Information

Change log
19-May-2009: Updated my email address.
20-Apr-2007: Added link to Business Week article
20-Mar-2007: More explanation of wiki engine recommendation
Original version.