7.3 Wikis

Learning Objectives

After studying this section you should be able to do the following:

  1. Know what wikis are and how they are used by corporations and the public at large.
  2. Understand the technical and social features that drive effective and useful wikis.
  3. Suggest opportunities where wikis would be useful and consider under what circumstances their use may present risks.
  4. Recognize how social media such as wikis and blogs can influence a firm’s customers and brand.

A wiki is a Web site anyone can edit directly within a Web browser (provided the site grants the user edit access). Wikis derive their name from the Hawaiian word for “quick.” Ward Cunningham, the “wiki father” christened this new class of software with the moniker in honor of the wiki-wiki shuttle bus at the Honolulu airport. Wikis can indeed be one of the speediest ways to collaboratively create content online. Many popular online wikis serve as a shared knowledge repository in some domain.

The largest and most popular wiki is Wikipedia, but there are hundreds of publicly accessible wikis that anyone can participate in. Each attempts to chronicle a world of knowledge within a particular domain, with examples ranging from Wine Wiki for oenophiles to Wookieepedia, the Star Wars wiki. But wikis can be used for any collaborative effort—from meeting planning to project management. And in addition to the hundreds of public wikis, there are many thousand more that are hidden away behind firewalls, used as proprietary internal tools for organizational collaboration.

Like blogs, the value of a wiki derives from both technical and social features. The technology makes it easy to create, edit, and refine content; learn when content has been changed, how and by whom; and to change content back to a prior state. But it is the social motivations of individuals (to make a contribution, to share knowledge) that allow these features to be harnessed. The larger and more active a wiki community, the more likely it is that content will be up-to-date and that errors will be quickly corrected (again, we see the influence of network effects, where products and services with larger user bases become more valuable). Several studies have shown that large community wiki entries are as or more accurate than professional publication counterparts (Lichter, 2009; Kane, et. al., 2009).

Want to add to or edit a wiki entry? On most sites you just click the “Edit” link. Wikis support what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) editing that, while not as robust as traditional word processors, is still easy enough for most users to grasp without training or knowledge of arcane code or markup language. Users can make changes to existing content and can easily create new pages or articles and link them to other pages in the wiki. Wikis also provide a version history. Click the “History” link on Wikipedia, for example, and you can see when edits were made and by whom. This feature allows the community to roll back a wiki to a prior page, in the event that someone accidentally deletes key info, or intentionally defaces a page.

Vandalism is a problem on Wikipedia, but it’s more of a nuisance than a crisis. A Wired article chronicled how Wikipedia’s entry for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter was regularly replaced by a photo of a “scruffy, random unshaven man with his left index finger shoved firmly up his nose” (Pink, 2005). Nasty and inappropriate, to be sure, but the Wikipedia editorial community is now so large and so vigilant that most vandalism is caught and corrected within seconds. Watch-lists for the most active targets (say the Web pages of political figures or controversial topics) tip off the community when changes are made. The accounts of vandals can be suspended, and while mischief-makers can log in under another name, most vandals simply become discouraged and move on. It’s as if an army of do-gooders follows a graffiti tagger and immediately repaints any defacement.

Wikis

As with blogs, a wiki’s features set varies depending on the specific wiki tool chosen, as well as administrator design, but most wikis support the following key features:

  • All changes are attributed, so others can see who made a given edit.
  • A complete revision history is maintained so changes can be compared against prior versions and rolled back as needed.
  • There is automatic notification and monitoring of updates; users subscribe to wiki content and can receive updates via e-mail or RSS feed when pages have been changed or new content has been added.
  • All the pages in a wiki are searchable.
  • Specific wiki pages can be classified under an organized tagging scheme.

Wikis are available both as software (commercial as well as open source varieties) that firms can install on their own computers or as online services (both subscription or ad-supported) where content is hosted off-site by third parties. Since wikis can be started without the oversight or involvement of a firm’s IT department, their appearance in organizations often comes from grassroots user initiative. Many wiki services offer additional tools such as blogs, message boards, or spreadsheets as part of their feature set, making most wikis really more full-featured platforms for social computing.

Jump-starting a wiki can be a challenge, and an underused wiki can be a ghost town of orphan, out-of-date, and inaccurate content. Fortunately, once users see the value of wikis, use and effectiveness often snowballs. The unstructured nature of wikis are also both a strength and weakness. Some organizations employ wikimasters to “garden” community content; “prune” excessive posts, “transplant” commentary to the best location, and “weed” as necessary. Wikipatterns.com offers a guide to the stages of wiki adoption and a collection of community-building and content-building strategies.

Examples of Wiki Use

Wikis can be vital tools for collecting and leveraging knowledge that would otherwise be scattered throughout an organization; reducing geographic distance; removing boundaries between functional areas; and flattening preexisting hierarchies. Companies have used wikis in a number of ways:

  • At Pixar, all product meetings have an associated wiki to improve productivity. The online agenda ensures that all attendees can arrive knowing the topics and issues to be covered. Anyone attending the meeting (and even those who can’t make it) can update the agenda, post supporting materials, and make comments to streamline and focus in-person efforts.
  • At European investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, employees use wikis for everything from setting meeting agendas to building multimedia training for new hires. Six months after launch, wiki use had surpassed activity on the firm’s established intranet. Wikis are also credited with helping to reduce Dresdner e-mail traffic by 75 percent (Carlin, 2007).
  • Sony’s PlayStation team uses wikis to regularly maintain one-page overviews on the status of various projects. In this way, legal, marketing, and finance staff can get quick, up-to-date status reports on relevant projects, including the latest projected deadlines, action items, and benchmark progress. Strong security measures are enforced that limit access to only those who must be in the know, since the overviews often discuss products that have not been released.
  • Employees at investment-advisory firm Manning and Napier use a wiki to collaboratively track news in areas of critical interest. Providing central repositories for employees to share articles and update evolving summaries on topics such as health care legislation, enables the firm to collect and focus what would otherwise be fragmented findings and insight. Now all employees can refer to central pages that each serve as a lightning rod attracting the latest and most relevant findings.
  • Intellipedia is a secure wiki built on Intelink, a U.S. government system connecting sixteen spy agencies, military organizations, and the Department of State. The wiki is a “magnum opus of espionage,” handling some one hundred thousand user accounts and five thousand page edits a day. Access is classified in tiers as “unclassified,” “secret,” and “top secret” (the latter hosting 439,387 pages and 57,248 user accounts). A page on the Mumbai terror attacks was up within minutes of the event, while a set of field instructions relating to the use of chlorine-based terror bombs in Iraq was posted and refined within two days of material identification—with the document edited by twenty-three users at eighteen locations (Calabrese, 2009).

When brought outside the firewall, corporate wikis can also be a sort of value-generation greenhouse, allowing organizations to leverage input from their customers and partners:

  • Intuit has created a “community wiki” that encourages the sharing of experience and knowledge not just regarding Intuit products, such as QuickBooks, but also across broader topics its customers may be interested in, such as industry-specific issues (e.g., architecture, nonprofit) or small business tips (e.g., hiring and training employees). The TurboTax maker has also sponsored TaxAlmanac.org, a wiki-based tax resource and research community.
  • Microsoft leveraged its customer base to supplement documentation for its Visual Studio software development tool. The firm was able to enter the Brazilian market with Visual Studio in part because users had created product documentation in Portuguese (King, 2007).
  • ABC and CBS have created public wikis for the television programs Lost, The Amazing Race, and CSI, among others, offering an outlet for fans, and a way for new viewers to catch up on character backgrounds and complex plot lines.
  • Executive Travel, owned by American Express Publishing, has created a travel wiki for its more than one hundred and thirty thousand readers with the goal of creating what it refers to as “a digital mosaic that in theory is more authoritative, comprehensive, and useful” than comments on a Web site, and far more up-to-date than any paper-based travel guide (King, 2007). Of course, one challenge in running such a corporate effort is that there may be a competing public effort already in place. Wikitravel.org currently holds the top spot among travel-based wikis, and network effects suggest it will likely grow and remain more current than rival efforts.

Don’t Underestimate the Power of Wikipedia

Not only is the nonprofit Wikipedia, with its enthusiastic army of unpaid experts and editors, replacing the three-hundred-year reference reign of Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia entries can impact nearly all large-sized organizations. Wikipedia is the go-to, first-choice reference site for a generation of “netizens,” and Wikipedia entries are invariably one of the top links, often the first link, to appear in Internet search results.

This position means that anyone from top executives to political candidates to any firm large enough to warrant an entry has to contend with the very public commentary offered up in a Wikipedia entry. In the same way that firms monitor their online reputations in blog posts and Twitter tweets, they’ve also got to keep an eye on wikis.

But firms that overreach and try to influence an entry outside of Wikipedia’s mandated neutral point of view (NPOV), risk a backlash and public exposure. Version tracking means the wiki sees all. Users on computers at right-leaning Fox News were embarrassingly caught editing the wiki page of the lefty pundit and politician Al Franken (a nemesis of Fox’s Bill O’Reilly) (Bergman, 2007); Sony staffers were flagged as editing the entry for the Xbox game Halo 3 (Williams, 2007); and none other than Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was criticized for editing his own Wikipedia biography (Hansen, 2005)—acts that some consider bad online form at best, and dishonest at worst.

One last point on using Wikipedia for research. Remember that according to its own stated policies, Wikipedia isn’t an original information source; rather, it’s a clearinghouse for verified information. So citing Wikipedia as a reference usually isn’t considered good form. Instead, seek out original (and verifiable) sources, such as those presented via the links at the bottom of Wikipedia entries.

Key Takeaways

  • Wikis can be powerful tools for many-to-many content collaboration, and can be ideal for creating resources that benefit from the input of many such as encyclopedia entries, meeting agendas, and project status documents.
  • The greater the number of wiki users, the more likely the information contained in the wiki will be accurate and grow in value.
  • Wikis can be public or private.
  • The availability of free or low-cost wiki tools can create a knowledge clearinghouse on topics, firms, products, and even individuals. Organizations can seek to harness the collective intelligence (wisdom of crowds) of online communities. The openness of wikis also acts as a mechanism for promoting organizational transparency and accountability.

Questions and Exercises

  1. Visit a wiki, either an established site like Wikipedia, or a wiki service like Socialtext. Make an edit to a wiki entry or use a wiki service to create a new wiki for your own use (e.g., for a class team to use in managing a group project). Be prepared to share your experience with the class.
  2. What factors determine the value of a wiki? Which key concept, first introduced in Chapter 2 “Strategy and Technology: Concepts and Frameworks for Understanding What Separates Winners from Losers”, drives a wiki’s success?
  3. If anyone can edit a wiki, why aren’t more sites crippled by vandalism or by inaccurate or inappropriate content? Are there technical reasons not to be concerned? Are there “social” reasons that can alleviate concern?
  4. Give examples of corporate wiki use, as well as examples where firms used wikis to engage their customers or partners. What is the potential payoff of these efforts? Are there risks associated with these efforts?
  5. Do you feel that you can trust content in wikis? Do you feel this content is more or less reliable than content in print encyclopedias? Than the content in newspaper articles? Why?
  6. Have you ever run across an error in a wiki entry? Describe the situation.
  7. Is it ethical for a firm or individual to edit their own Wikipedia entry? Under what circumstances would editing a Wikipedia entry seem unethical to you? Why? What are the risks a firm or individual is exposed to when making edits to public wiki entries? How do you suppose individuals and organizations are identified when making wiki edits?
  8. Would you cite Wikipedia as a reference when writing a paper? Why or why not?

References

Bergman, A., “Wikipedia Is Only as Anonymous as your I.P.,” O’Reilly Radar, August 14, 2007.

Calabrese, M., “Wikipedia for Spies: The CIA Discovers Web 2.0,” Time, April 8, 2009.

Carlin, D., “Corporate Wikis Go Viral,” BusinessWeek, March 12, 2007.

Hansen, E., “Wikipedia Founder Edits Own Bio,” Wired, December 19, 2005.

Kane, J., R. Fichman, J. Gallaugher, and J. Glaser, “Community Relations 2.0,” Harvard Business Review, November 2009.

King, R., “No Rest for the Wiki,” BusinessWeek, March 12, 2007.

Lichter, S. R., Are Chemicals Killing Us? Statistical Assessment Service, May 21, 2009.

Pink, D., “The Book Stops Here,” Wired, March 2005.

Williams, I., “Sony Caught Editing Halo 3 Wikipedia Entry,” Vnunet.com, September 5, 2007.

This is a derivative of Information Systems: A Manager's Guide to Harnessing Technology by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.