Wikis At Work

Wikis can bring a sense of involvement and innovation to an organization -- if they're implemented wisely. We look at three different companies, large and small, who are giving wikis

February 4, 2006

14 Min Read
Network Computing logo

As interest in Web 2.0 picks up speed, the development and implementation of social software (such as blogs, wikis, and photo- and bookmark-sharing systems like Flickr and is also gaining traction. Although these platforms are still relatively new, their presence in the world of business is growing quickly as they gain complexity and robustness. Chief among them is the wiki.



A wiki is a Web site that can be edited by anybody who is granted permission. In a business environment, that can mean a workgroup, a department, or even the whole company. The people who access the data and documents in a wiki are also the authors of the wiki, making it ideal for information sharing.

While wikis aren't the best tool for discussions or real-time collaboration, they excel as resources for archiving documents and tracking workflow. In addition to Web pages, wikis can link to spreadsheets, Word documents, PowerPoint slides, PDFs – anything that can be displayed in a browser. They can also embed standard communications media such as e-mail and IM. In other words, they let users gather all the information and correspondence pertinent to a project within one central location.

What's more, most wikis are either open source or based on open-source code. Open-source wikis are absolutely free for companies who implement them, and even licensed versions – which include implementation and support – are cheap compared to standard project- or content-management software. (See Wikis In The Business World for a more complete introduction to wikis and whether they're right for your company.)


The people who access the data and documentsin a wiki are also the authors of the wiki,making it ideal for information sharing.

We interviewed three businesses, large and small, that have implemented wikis:




The Corporate Strategy department of mobile communications giant Nokia, located in Finland, has four active wikis on both open-source and proprietary platforms. The organization has more than 50,000 employees worldwide; currently, 1,000 to 1,500 employees throughout Nokia use wikis.

•, a 25- to 30-person startup, is a subsidiary of business intelligence firm MicroStrategy, Inc., specializing in Interactive Voice Response (IVR) software. uses commercial wiki software from Socialtext companywide.


Finally, about 100 workers at the 250-person Canadian Meteorological Centre (CMC), a section of Environment Canada that deals with weather forecasts (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Predictions), use a wiki based on the open-source Tikiwiki platform.

We also spoke with Marc Laporte, who runs a Quebec-based consulting business called that builds, installs, and maintains open-source wikis based on the Tikiwiki platform. Laporte started using wikis as a hobby, converted them into a business model, and now makes his living implementing wikis for small and medium-sized businesses and nonprofits.


The representatives we spoke with all provided insight into how wikis typically find their way into corporations, what effect they have once they're there, and how they can be used most effectively.
Bringing Wikis Into The Corporate Environment
How wikis enter the workplace can vary dramatically from one implementation to the next. Getting a wiki installed can often be impeded at the management level by fears that it will disrupt the workforce and their workflow, that a wiki will be a distraction from "real" tasks, or that it is just a fad that will end up simply costing time and labor (mostly in the IT department).



As a result, many wikis are launched as tests, often by departments with technically savvy workers or groups with a penchant for experimentation. Some are officially sanctioned, while others sneak in under the radar.

At Nokia, the first wiki was brought in as an experiment by the Corporate Strategy team without consulting the IT department. Stephen Johnston, our contact in the department, told us, "After installing it we were told that it was probably against company policy." According to Johnston, resistance from the IT team stemmed from misgivings about overhead costs, the delegation of control to users, and the fear that wikis were a fad. However, the wiki (built on an open-source platform) quickly proved to be an effective means of saving time and effort previously dedicated to the task of distributing and storing corporate intelligence.

Johnston says wikis have proliferated within Nokia since the initial test. The company has purchased 200 seats of Socialtext, and four wikis, on both open-source and proprietary platforms, are being used by between 1,000 and 1,500 employees. As a result of the wikis' success, Nokia has agreed to fund and support a companywide wiki as well as a host of other collaborative tools. A skunkworks, or new technology project team, has also been established "to provide new tools such as wikis within days to business groups that ask to test new tools," says Johnston.


Some wikis are officially sanctioned, while others sneak in under the radar.

At, the wiki was brought in by a member of the engineering team – who was introduced to the idea of wikis by a fellow attendee at a business training seminar – as a way to manage customer support tickets. Initially, had no official position on wikis, and the company ran an open-source wiki called Quickiwiki, which came with the book The Wiki Way by Bo Leuf and Ward Cunningham.

The wiki ran for several years on a Linux box under the desk of Sam Aparicio, Vice President of Products and Strategy at When it became clear that the wiki was a stable and functional tool, the company moved to Socialtext's hosted wiki to minimize the burden on the IT team.

The Canadian Meteorological Centre was first introduced to the idea of wikis by a physicist who was contributing to Wikipedia, the open-source encyclopedia and world's largest wiki. He managed to convince his boss of the value of wikis, and the first wiki, based on the open-source Tikiwiki platform, was installed by the IT group. The wiki was at first relegated to a test bed, but quickly proved both stable and popular enough to graduate to legitimate status.


From there it was simply a matter of time as adoption grew. Michel Van Eeckhout, Scientific Programmer Analyst at the CMC, told us that within three months of the initial wiki deployment, eight wikis had sprung up. Van Eeckhout now administers 10 active wikis used by 28 employees, but adds that there are other wikis at the CMC that aren't administered by him. He estimates that about 100 CMC employees use wikis, and that number is growing every day.

Marc Laporte cautions companies to choose a wiki carefully. Switching between them is not easy: The nomenclature is sometimes proprietary and will almost certainly change if you change wikis, meaning your users will have to learn a whole new system. As Marc points out, "Once people use it, they become a part of the system."
Getting Employees On Board

With many technologies, employee compliance and learning curves can be a significant barrier to adoption. But according to the companies we spoke with, wikis don't suffer the same adoption problems as other technologies, because they quickly prove themselves to be both intuitive and viral.



In his wiki consulting business, Marc Laporte has found that there is generally no active resistance or belligerent non-compliance when wikis are implemented, but there can be initial concern over loss of control or ownership. The CMC's Van Eeckhout, for instance, told us that people were initially thrown by the idea of a wiki, but once they overcame that, the usefulness of the tool became evident.

Another barrier to wiki adoption is the geek factor. By the admission of all those interviewed for this article, wikis are still early in their evolution as corporate tools and often have a nonprofessional look and feel. Although employees access wikis through familiar Web browsers, what they find can be confusing or intimidating. The easiest way to reduce the nerd factor is to buy a commercial wiki rather than implement an open-source version. (See the sidebar below for more on the commercial vs. open-source question.)


Once people start using the wiki, they become part of the system it creates and, in turn, the wiki becomes part of the dynamics of the office.

Because wikis are designed for collaboration, forcing their use is contrary to their nature. Instead, wikis are most successful when they are allowed to grow from a grass-roots effort. The value of wikis, says's Aparicio, becomes clear through exposure to the tool and its benefits. It is in the interest of everyone who needs access to the knowledge held in a wiki to participate and maintain a presence.

Laporte recommends that companies instituting wikis not waste time trying to convert people who resist, but rather let social pressure work it out. Once people start using the wiki, they become part of the system it creates and, in turn, the wiki becomes part of the dynamics of the office. Those who don't participate are left out of the conversation and stand the risk of not being as informed as their peers.

Laporte also suggests assigning a person or a team to manage the wiki, especially at the beginning. Although wikis grow organically as users add to them, wiki managers can help organize them into an easily understandable structure right at the outset. They can also be on hand to answer questions, which will help drive user adoption.

Commercial Vs. Open-Source Wikis

The first question companies face when implementing a wiki is which platform to use.

Wikis are no different from any other piece of technology in that the IT team will have to bear a certain amount of responsibility for it. Commercial wikis, in which the vendor provides setup and ongoing support, are likely to consume less IT time; companies that implement open-source wikis are usually on their own. And because wikis are in a nascent stage, their user-friendliness can be spotty. Like commercial Linux distributors, vendors of commercial wiki packages "degeek" the software for end users.

For these reasons, eventually chose the proprietary Socialtext wiki package – a good fit for a small business whose employees' time is already stretched. (Although Socialtext is a commercial package, the company did open up 80 percent of its code in 2005 in keeping with the tool's open-source roots.)

On the other hand, open-source wikis tend to be significantly more customizable – and, of course, they're free. A team that is willing to manage an open-source wiki is likely to have a higher proportion of tech enthusiasts on its staff than one that chooses a commercial package. The Canadian Meteorological Centre, which uses mostly Linux machines to develop software, is already friendly to open source. Its IT team chose the open-source Tikiwiki platform because it was free and because the team has the expertise and desire to maintain it.

Another option is to hire a third party, such as Laporte, to administer an open-source wiki. Laporte uses Tikiwiki because it allows him to tailor the tool to each business environment.

Neither open source nor commercial wikis are innately better – some corporate environments are better suited to the flexibility of open source, while others will benefit from the ease of use and built-in support of a packaged solution. Like, some companies find that implementing an open-source wiki is the best way to test the utility and viability of the tool, but then move to a commercial solution to minimize support issues in the long run.

For a list of both open-source and commercial wikis, see the Wiki Tools section of our previous article.

The Wiki Effect
What is most compelling about wikis is how they can induce very similar behaviors in very different environments: They are able to normalize the way information and intelligence move around corporate systems, regardless of their size.




Wikis make it easier to organize and compartmentalize work in small companies, which can be prone to a lack of explicit organization, while they help large corporations overcome the hurdles of task and information distribution (often over disparate locations) by aggregating critical knowledge. Because a wiki stores information as both content and hyperlinks, each wiki entry is, effectively, a living document. The dynamic nature of wikis means that, at least in theory, the information they contain is more likely to be both current and accurate than in static knowledge management systems.

Wikis are like the human mind in that commonly referenced data is the most prominent in the "awareness" of the wiki. In other words, frequently accessed pages gain visual prominence in the wiki, which makes it easy for users to find the most up-to-date, useful information. One glaring problem with many wikis is that some documents atrophy through neglect, but this is a natural and expected result of any selective environment.


Wikis both amplify traditional business practices and introduce potentially revolutionary forms of collaboration within and between teams.

As at most fledgling companies, job descriptions at rarely reflect the actual scope of employees' responsibilities. "Multitasking" is a gross understatement, and follow-through can be neglected.'s wiki has helped to reduce these problems by creating a central place for monitoring and recording tasks and progress. Aparicio describes the company's wiki as "corporate memory." uses its wiki in the expected ways – tracking internal documents and conversations, channeling information to the appropriate people, and so on. But the sales team also uses it some novel and innovative ways: Lead counts and partnerships, best-practice use of the company's software, competitive intelligence, and internal business processes are all cataloged by the wiki, cradle to grave.

One of the primary benefits of wikis is that turnover in its user population does not affect the knowledge base – no more lost documents and files when somebody leaves. For example, Laporte subscribed to a wiki page at the community portal, and a year later, the wiki e-mailed to notify him that a feature he was interested in had been modified. It didn't matter whether the developers working on that project had changed or not – he would have received that notice either way.


It's important to note that wikis are not a panacea. They are flexible and powerful but not well suited to rigidly hierarchical tasks. (Most wikis provide for a system of permission-granting that can help to mitigate this, however.) Furthermore, wikis are archiving tools; there are better tools for real-time collaboration and debate.

Changing Corporate Culture
Several of the people interviewed for this article argued that wikis should be central to a larger effort to revolutionize an office – they should be an expression of a change in ideas as well as an attempt to change rigid behaviors.

According Nokia's Johnston, the test wiki implemented by the Corporate Strategy department was part of a larger initiative to harness the power of social software – blogs, for example, are also very popular within the department. Nokia's wikis are part of a long-term transition to two-way communication, what Johnston calls "a world of read-write rather than just read." His comment highlights one of the raisons d'être of the social software movement – the desire to use computers to create a means of open discourse and introduce feedback into formerly static environments.

Wikis both amplify traditional business practices and introduce potentially revolutionary forms of collaboration within and between teams. They can be unruly, so there may be several sections of a company wiki that have strict editorial control. But remember that the point of a wiki is to decentralize control of communication so that everything from best practices to arcane knowledge can be gathered and floated to the surface of the corporate awareness. When used intelligently and trustingly, wikis can be a highly effective means of facilitating information distribution.

Stay informed! Sign up to get expert advice and insight delivered direct to your inbox

You May Also Like

More Insights