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Implementing a Department Wiki? A Writer Shares Some Dos and Don'ts (Guest Post)

by Tom Johnson on Jun 30, 2009
categories: technical-writing wikis

This is a guest post by Cathy Wildhaber about her experience implementing a wiki in her department. Cathy is a technical writer in Kansas City. For the past 4 years, she has worked for a company that provides computer systems and services to financial organizations.

Ever take a look at some slick wiki technology and think "Wow, that's really cool…I want one"? I did, and the results (an internal wiki for the documentation department where I work) were…less than stellar. Here's how you can avoid my mistakes.

I had been working on a continuing education SharePoint site for the department. There was a wiki webpart available in SharePoint, and I became intrigued. What better way to help department members increase their knowledge about the profession than by harnessing our collective brainpower and talents! We could create collaborative summaries of training we'd attended! The intern could create a "new hire" section! We could have a knowledge base! How cool!

Wiki Dos (and Don'ts)

I immediately set up the webpart, learned how to create and edit pages, and provided a training session for my coworkers. I gushed about the endless possibilities, and then sat back and waited for the quality content to roll in. It didn't.

Where had I gone wrong? Through the power of hindsight—and the research I should have done before I launched the wiki—I've come up with a few guidelines to follow next time. Perhaps you'll find them helpful, as well.

Start with a clear purpose (a.k.a. Avoid the "if you build it, they will come" fallacy)

If you get starry-eyed over a wiki and then try to come up with ways you could use it, adoption is likely to be weak, as was the case in our department. If, however, you have a genuine process inefficiency or lack of resource that a wiki could help solve, you have a much better chance of success.

This phenomenon is best described by Mark Shead. He defines two types of technology users. Members of the first group identify a problem and then seek a technology to resolve it. Members of the second group, on the other hand, start with a cool new technology and then look for a way to incorporate it into their lives. When members of the first group adopt a technology, they are more likely to stick to it. Members of the second group often abandon the technology after a short time.

Prove how the wiki can benefit users

To embrace a wiki, users must first see how it will benefit them. Provide examples of how their real-world work could be moved to a wiki, and show how it could result in more efficient processes.

Ease existing fears about the wiki

People unfamiliar with wikis may fear that a platform in which any person can edit or delete any page will be chaotic. They may feel concern that a wiki could easily devolve into a free-for-all.

In a company wiki, the accountability for contributions and edits is much higher than in a major public wiki like Wikipedia—no one could leave anonymous spam. And while a small company wiki would likely not have the system of checks that Wikipedia employs, most small wiki communities tend to be naturally self-regulating. Chaotic editing and questions of ownership tend to be non-issues.

Provide proper training

If members don't understand the broad concept of a wiki or the specifics of creating pages and setting up links, they won't use it. Be sure to train users on what a wiki is (its purpose and what it's good for) as well as on the wiki tool itself (how to create pages and set up links).

Don't make it a chore

Don't force the wiki upon department members. A lack of posts or edits by a particular member does not necessarily mean that the member is not finding value in the wiki.

Nurture your wiki

A wiki needs care and attention. Having an official "administrator" could imply that content is being policed, but you should ensure that someone performs a few maintenance functions:

  • Introduction of a loose organization or structure (perhaps in the form of a home page that links to broad categories).
  • Periodic checks to ensure that all pages can be found easily through links to a main page.
  • Periodic checks to weed out any spam or mean-spirited contributions.
  • Acknowledgement of good ideas, sorting of feedback, and implementation of suggestions.

Use metadata

To keep your wiki well-organized and usable, incorporate metadata. Metadata allows users to sort by category to quickly find what they're looking for. Many wiki programs allow you to require that metadata be selected and allow you to define your own metadata. Other possibilities for metadata include content stages (can indicate whether the page is new, developing, or complete) or audience tags (can indicate whether the page is primarily for management, administration, or developers).

Broadcast updates

A system that notifies members when information has been added or changed will remind users that the wiki exists, and it will help ensure that the content is current, correct, and relevant. Notifications could come in the form of an RSS feed, or they can be as simple as an email alert. Users may prefer to receive a daily or weekly digest of changes, rather than notifications about every single change.

Encourage participation

A good way to encourage participation in the wiki is to enlist the help of a select few. You may select the most well-respected and established veterans of the department, or the enthusiastic early adopters of each new gadget, or the department members most willing to share their opinions. Often these individuals can pave the way for the rest. Recruit them to help get the wiki started; the rest of the group may well be more willing to participate after ground has been broken.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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