How to keep your wiki growing

Posted on: April 2nd, 2009 No Comments

Anyone who has been working with wikis for a while can see we have come to a crossroads.  I’m not talking about whether we’ll keep using wikis (probably none of us can function without them).  Rather, the path forward to keeping our wikis dynamic and growing is murky.  I think we can find our footing again if we focus on the three foundations of vibrate wikis: ownership, tagging, and permalinks.   Without these three pillars to support future wiki development, we’ll be stuck at the current fork in the road forever.

Why do I believe this?  Examine your own experience with wikis over the past few years.

Think back to when your wiki was new.  Like any fresh creation, your new wiki was all about growth.  Forget organization.  Forget the details.  Just stuff it full of useful info and BOOM!, full-text search nirvana!

And then came the tennis balls

If you’re like me, you may realize that you spent a lot of time creating new wikis for all kinds of purposes and then abandoned them when they became unwieldy, unfocused, and difficult to maintain.  Here at WebWorks.com, I created or oversaw the development of no fewer than eight wikis.  So I wound up with a lot of great information walled off into 8 distinct systems.  That’s not even including the ones I started on a whim using Google Sites (formerly JotSpot).  I think I used some of those wikis exactly once!

Over time, you realized your wikis are living creatures.  You give them life, help them grow, and then watch as they mature and decline.  Unfortunately, more than once, the wikis you created with such enthusiasm too quickly became graveyards of unused information.

We’ve all tried patching over this issue in different ways.  One approach, taken by TWiki, TWiki’s offspring Foswiki, and MediaWiki, was to add namespace support.  This enabled us to trade those 8 distinct systems for 8 namespaces.  It eased management to somewhat, but personally, I still found myself creating new namespaces because the existing ones had become unwieldy, unfocused, and difficult to maintain.  Another approach involved going to the other extreme: no namespaces, no ownership, no hierarchies.  See Wikipedia for a great example of this method.  It definitely works for Wikipedia.  Yet whenever I’ve tried to apply Wikipedia’s approach to corporate wikis, the experience has been less than successful.

Why is this problem so hard for corporate wikis?

Why does Wikipedia seem to have the problem licked?

Here’s what I think.  First, just like the issue of tennis balls in the server room, having a good wiki boils down to ownership.  Wikipedia is unique in that people feel they own the whole site.  So a flat page organization works well.  Corporate wikis can’t use this approach.  Departments have turf, be it in payroll space, office space, or wiki space.  And departments defend their turf, even in wiki space.  As a business, each department (or individual) is tasked with “proving value“.  A manager who demonstrates provable knowledge contributions by staff increases the perceived value of the department.  This leads to increased budgets, staff promotions, etc.

The conclusion I’ve drawn is that ownership must be preserved in corporate wikis.  Unfortunately, ownership implies hierarchies, namespaces and other barriers to knowledge sharing.  Luckily, a few bright folks (del.icio.us and Flickr) have already tackled this issue with tagging.  Now we’ll be able to organize and share information regardless of who “owns” it and where it is stored.  Finally, to enable our wiki content to be used by the rest of the world, we can take the permalink approach (thanks Blogosphere!) to ensure folks can always find information they come to rely upon.

Here at WebWorks.com, we’ve attacked our middle-aged wikis with a new tool,  the MoinMoin Explorer theme.  The Explorer theme enables wiki users to visual MoinMoin’s version of tagging, MoinMoin categories.  Now, we require internal users to create new wiki pages under their personal name to maintain ownership, say BenAllums, and then share the information with tagging via categories.  Finally, we dedicate an area of the wiki for permalinks titled, Permalinks.

At this point, we’ve rolled out the Explorer + ownership + tagging + permalinks approach internally.  Our documentation wiki has received the Explorer + permalinks treatment and the WebWorks wiki is next in line.  There is much work ahead to leverage these new capabilities.  Yet we’ve already witnessed one rebirth.  Our internal wiki server has regained its former vitality and strength.

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