Wikis could improve corporate collaboration, reduce network traffic and even help meet regulatory record-keeping requirements - someday - attendees at Thursday's Interop keynote address were told.
"When you share control with users, you gain innovation," said Ross Mayfield, CEO of wiki software vendor Socialtext (http://www.socialtext.com/), touting one potential benefit of the technology.
But before companies can reap any benefits they face a much more fundamental problem: how do you get people to start using a wiki in the first place, said Andrew McAfee, a Harvard Business School professor who co-presented the keynote. Wikis typically are collaborative Web sites that let users easily add, remove and edit content.
"You have to make it deadly simple and easy to use because the competition is e-mail where all you have to do to communicate is hit 'send'," he said.
Wikis could completely do away with blanket e-mails sent to entire departments or companies creating what Mayfield calls occupational spam. He says such spam represents a third of all e-mail.
Because wikis let anyone within the corporation participate, they can foster group decisions that are more innovative than those decided through closed processes, McAfee said. And because each time a wiki is changed it records a new version, it represents a document trail of how decisions are made.
"You can see exactly what happened and who did it. It's a record of when you became aware of a problem and how quickly you reacted to it," he said. Eventually, a secure corporate wiki might serve to meet regulatory compliance for keeping records of how corporate decisions were made. By reviewing the wiki, a regulator could determine that corporate decision makers followed rules, McAfee said.
But that is a long way off, he said. One corporation that uses a wiki found it difficult to get anyone to use it, so the managing director forced them to. He made the wiki the only place anyone could view the agenda for the director's meeting and make suggestions for adding new topics of discussion. The hope was that once they used it for one thing, they would recognize its value and use it for other business purposes.
Another hurdle for corporate wiki use is getting the output from wiki discussion to meet corporate goals. Wikis foster a type of innovation known as emergence, where ideas bubble up from below and eventually generate an idea. "Patterns and structure appear over time as a result of a lot of low-level interaction," McAfee said.
One example is Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page), which started off as a project to create the world's best encyclopedia in what was known as the Newpedia project. A wiki was used as a communication tool to talk about how to develop Newpedia, but people also sent in encyclopedia entries rather than going through the formal Newpedia editing process, McAfee said.
Wikipedia founders realized the entries submitted via the wiki were as good as the formal submissions and began posting them.
In a corporate setting, it would be a difficult management chore to figure out how to get users to participate and predictably come up with a solution to a business problem, McAfee said. In the case of Wikipedia, the open authoring of encyclopedia entries was a useful outcome of the wiki, but nobody knew at the outset that would be the result, McAfee said.
It is also uncertain how many active users a wiki needs to become useful. For example, 500 people do half the editing changes made on Wikipedia, a miniscule percentage of the total users of Wikipedia. "Those who contribute are vanishingly small. If you reduced that to the size of an enterprise, that translates into nobody using it," McAfee said.
Wikis also have the potential to disrupt collaboration by acting as organizational alcohol that intensifies users' natural personalities. "People who want to hide can hide. They don't have to participate. People who are abrasive become even more abrasive," he said.
While wikis are not perfected for corporate use now, they still warrant development and use in corporations on a limited scale to see what they can produce, he says. "The opposite of imposed structure is not necessarily chaos," McAfee said.