Ward Cunningham, the developer of the first wiki software (WikiWikiWeb) originally described it as “the simplest online database that could possibly work.” His words speak to the first appeal of a wiki: its simplicity. When viewed, a wiki page is a clean and simple webpage containing text and hyperlinks (think Wikipedia). The second appeal of a wiki is its ability to foster collaboration. That is because wikis are a collection of web pages that allow all users—and not simply the webmaster or website administrator—to freely edit the content of the pages. The wiki page therefore becomes a collaborative environment, rather than the classic website, which is a one-sided publication under the administrator’s lock and key.
When used well, wikis offer a simple-to-find and simple-to-use centralized location for information on specific projects, procedural guidance, internal knowledge, and anything else members want or are required to contribute. Too often, employees in organizations hoard information (unintentionally or intentionally) on how to complete tasks that only they have ever done. While it is possible that they have a particular set of skills no one else possesses, it is perhaps more likely that simply no one else knows the process or how to access any information about it. How often have you had to wait for someone to return from lunch, a vacation, or sick leave to make a determination about a specific issue? Encouraging users to document such tasks in a wiki helps avoid such waiting periods and makes the organization far more efficient. Likewise, in a precarious job market, a wiki can be a constant repository of knowledge that matures with your organization, even as members leave or new members are hired. Wikis make it easier to capture, find, and consume an organization’s collective knowledge.
In law firms or law departments, wikis can be used to create a knowledge base by housing information on day-to-day tasks (e.g., maintaining notes of team meetings, checklists for administrative processes, etc.); specific projects (e.g., pending litigation, technology upgrades, policy and procedural guidance, etc.); document repositories (e.g., best practice documents, templates, sample policies, etc.); and other materials.
In our law firm, for example, we have used wikis to store client-specific documents, such as company background information and outside counsel guidelines. We have also used wikis to create client counseling logs to keep all attorneys working for a particular client abreast of matters and advice given to the client. The counseling log ensures consistency in our responses and avoids duplicative efforts. We also have wiki pages for each internal project that our Knowledge Management Department is working on. Moreover, the firm’s wikis exist behind our firewall, ensuring that all of our content is secure.
Naturally, a kneejerk concern about wikis is that, by their very nature, they can easily be modified by all users and therefore are hard to “control.” However, this concern is often allayed by the fact that the website administrator can still decide who can access the page in the first place (for instance, only employees of the company, or only individuals working on project Alpha, or attorneys working for client Beta). Further, technology easily allows members to track changes made by different users, view the history of previous versions, and block access to anyone who behaves inappropriately or maliciously in their use of the wiki.
Given the technical ease of use and low cost of implementation, wikis can have a profound impact on the dissemination of knowledge at an organization.
Jennifer Mendez is a knowledge management analyst in the Morristown, New Jersey office of Ogletree Deakins.