25 July 2006

Wikis Get Down to Business

Mention wikis, and most people think of Wikipedia. But Wikipedia is a one-off, a unique, unrepeatable example of what a wiki can be. And so its well-aired growing pains are also pretty specific to what it is and what it's trying to do. They arise mostly from the lack of a strict organisational hierarchy that allows content to be perused and ultimately policed. Strikingly, just such a hierarchy is a salient feature of all the main open source projects, from Linux down.

As a consequence, this most uncorporate of tools might just flourish best precisely in the context of a company. Why? Because there the hierarchy is already in place - it doesn't even need to be articulated, it can simply be applied in the context of a wiki. Basically, this means that more junior members of the hierarchy have to watch what they say and do more than senior ones.

That doesn't imply that they should refrain from joining in: on the contrary. The wiki is a canvas on which to display their wit and wisdom to even the most senior echelons of the company, so it would be counter-productive to abstain entirely. But it does mean that the kind of puerile activities that some get up to on Wikipedia would be self-censored.

Against this background, it's interesting to see announcements from two companies offering corporate wiki products. JotSpot applies the wiki's collaborative method to traditional tools like documents and spreadsheets. I think that's a mistake, because the wiki isn't so much a way as a thing, contrary to popular wisdom. After all, collaboration is hardly a new idea; what's new is the specific form of the wikispace in which it happens. In that respect, I prefer Socialtext's approach, especially now that it has come out with an open source version.

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