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A Shift in Thinking on Enterprise Wikis

Friday, November 5, 2010
Whenever I explain why someone should use a wiki I usually come back to this graphic created by NASA:


Wikis, according to NASA, are designed (or at least deployed) to help mitigate the problems associated with document coordination via email. Whenever I show people this image, they immediately identify with the problems associated with document coordination and coauthoring via email.

Herein lies my question: if wikis are meant to help mitigate the email problem, why is it that when it comes to policy compliance we treat them like websites and not like email?


Because they’re web-based?

True, wikis are web based. But then again, so is email. In my opinion, what we are really talking about here is browser based versus client-based communication; think MediaWiki versus Outlook. This is most likely a nuance that is lost on many, taken for granted or considered unimportant. But the more I think about this, the more I think that these small differences are playing out in some major ways.


My Hunch on Policy

I have a hunch that many of the problems with deploying enterprise wikis are linked to the fact that we have trouble with them from both a policy and a cultural perspective because we try to treat them more like an intranet than like email. From a policy standpoint, we look at wikis and think about all of the interrelated policy frameworks (e.g. Official Languages Act; Access to Information Act; Privacy Act; Policy on Information Management; etc) and how they apply to government websites. I can see why we have gravitated in that direction, but have a feeling that it may be hindering adoption in a significant way. I would argue that public servants already understand their policy obligations when communicating via email. The only evidence I offer is the fact that email essentially runs the enterprise, and has for quite some time now.

Explaining wikis as websites that anyone can edit (standard practice, of which I am guilty) rather than a means of complementing email means that public servants are no longer familiar with their policy obligations. I’ve written on this matter before – about how push-button publication is changing the relationship between accountability and responsibility – but only connected the dots recently.


Why we might want to shift our thinking

Thinking about wikis as websites is creating confusion and complication, it disconnects us with what we are familiar with (email) and puts many outside of their comfort zone. We may overcome some of the barriers to adoption by refocusing on the fact that wikis can compliment email, and thus can be governed by a similar set of rules and norms. We look at email and understand how we craft it depends on the circumstances: intent, publisher, audience and the corporate (or non corporate) nature of the communication, etc. If we simply applied the same logic we might have higher levels of comfort around the use of wikis within the enterprise.


Wikis aren't new, they are new to government

I know I sound like a broken record when I bring it back to Clay Shirky’s statement about the transformative nature of technology, but I think it is incredibly important:

"These tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It isn't when the shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society. It's when everybody is able to take them for granted. Because now that media is increasingly social, innovation can happen anywhere that people can take for granted the idea that we're all in this together." – Clay Shirky, TED Talk

Dulling the Luster

Perhaps giving everyone in the enterprise “control over their own website” is simply far too interesting, while extending their (boring) old email system is far less so. Moving forward I’m considering purposely dulling the shine of enterprise wikis by explaining them more like this:

“Think of wikis as just an extension of email. They make it easier to circulate those enormous attachments or collate people’s input on a document. All in all they aren’t so much shiny, new or interesting as they are ruthlessly utilitarian.”