Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Wiki best practices

Posted in People / organisations, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on September 6, 2008

I am on the excellent Refresh Cambridge mailing list and another member asked for advice about wikis. I gave a long reply and a few people recommended that I share it with others.

First, there is the question of which wiki to select. I have a strong preference for open source wikis to minimize vendor lock-in. If you ever do decide to migrate to another wiki vendor in the future you are more likely to succeed if you began with open source software.

MediaWiki is charming but the user interface is too uncomfortable for most people, especially the subject matter experts you want to do the most writing. The advantages of open source are outweighed by the usability issues. On the other hand, I have heard someone cheekily saying that the reason the Wikipedia is still high quality is that its MediaWiki software puts off authors below a certain intelligence.

Socialtext is a brilliant open source wiki, but installing your own version is hard and pricing is for enterprise customers. So I personally like Deki Wiki because although it is open source, the user interface is Microsoft Word-friendly and administering the software is very easy with their hosted version.

By contrast I hate Confluence because it is a massive proprietary content management system, and because its user interface encourage each author to make a large stand-alone office document rather than richly interconnected web pages. This habit is pernicious and difficult to reverse so you must be vigilant early on in a deployment to teach everyone the value of interconnected web pages.

At any rate, I regularly use all four of these wikis and I know that I am in the minority in my aversion to Confluence. I would never choose it, but I can see that great results are possible with.

So how do you get great results with a wiki? Here are nine tips from my experience:

  1. Everyone in the group must commit to using the wiki, and to the wiki being the version of record. It is dispiriting for junior people assigned to write on a wiki to see the real decision makers discussing elsewhere and to understand that none of the seniors will use the wiki.
  2. To get that commitment without a big change effort, it is better to have everyone in a small group of ten using the wiki than it is to have a couple of people from each of five groups doing so. The good folks of Common Craft have an excellent video explaining the advantages of wikis.
  3. Have your debates about the contentious issues on the wiki, for all stakeholders to see, not in private conversations, and resist the temptation to make private decisions through messages between insiders in your group
  4. Everyone will have their own excuse for keeping material away from the wiki, often citing “security”. But in general, most people’s bias is towards under- rather than oversharing, so there needs to be a strong champion who has the opposite bias.
  5. Use the wiki to take minutes of any meetings you hold. Have someone in charge of writing the minutes during the meeting, with the output projected on the screen. A lot of misunderstandings are cleared up that way as people can see straight away if they have been misunderstood and can make correction there and then with the group watching and learning.
  6. A wiki is not a reason to have no meetings, rather it is an easy way to have a version of record as decisions are made in these meetings.
  7. The best thing about Socialtext is that it sends everyone a daily update by default. This seems a subtle difference but it really motivates everyone else in the team to see a message of what their colleagues did the previous day. If you use a different wiki, switch to this default.
  8. To get over the initial period of colleagues who do nothing in the beginning, make sure you write something every day so that your colleagues feel guilty enough to do start doing something.
  9. Instead of answer e-mail questions and then trying to summarize the consensus on the wiki, write your thoughts on a wiki page and then send the link to everyone else you want to have a consensus.

A final note about my first comment about junior people being assigned to write on a wiki. This is both a strength and a weakness. I like to show juniors that contributing to the wiki is an excellent way for them to learn about the organization, and to show the organization how much your are willing to contribute to its success. On the other hand, if you give out signals that wiki work is of minor importance and that is why you are parcelling it out to junior people of minor importance, you will get an unused and useless wiki.

People get the wikis they deserve.

5 Responses

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  1. BuZain said, on September 6, 2008 at 4:38 pm

    Great tips. Thanks for sharing Doc. I recently started a wiki to overcome the challenges we have in our company to keep track of system interfaces and the intricacies of integration. It is based on Dokuwiki and its simple design and structure made people jump on it immediately. Each system/interface has an owner, but everybody can contribute to any page while the owner keeps things tidy.

    I’ll definitely share with my team these great tips.

  2. Alan Lepofsky said, on September 6, 2008 at 4:42 pm

    Hello Mohammad. My name is Alan Lepofsky, and I work at Socialtext. I am glad to see you like our current offering, and we’re about to announce some big things in September, so stay tuned! Are you aware Socialtext is available hosted? You don’t have to install it on your own. If you would like to try out the hosted service, please visit http://www.socialtext.com/about/get-started. As for pricing, the service is free for up to 5 users. After that it is $10 USD/user/month, but during your trial an account rep would be happy to speak to you about some special pricing around 20 or 50 users, depending on the size of your community.

  3. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli said, on September 6, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Hi Alan, and thanks for your comment. For the record, I recommend Socialtext to everyone I work with, and I introduced it at my previous employer. We had 300 users by the time I left, and they should be close to 1000 by the end of this year.

    For my start-up, however, cash is tight and I won’t be able to take advantage of your software. But one day…

  4. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli said, on September 6, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Hala BuZain, and I agree that DokuWiki is good. It’s such a light wiki that is really nice to get going with. I used it at NIH and would say that it allowed me to type at the speed of thought.

    Oh, and it’s full of open source goodness of course.

  5. John said, on September 6, 2008 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Mohammed,
    This blog reflects your interest in supporting people and organizations as they convert to online operations. As your friend, I want to assure everyone that you are for real. Your are a true change agent. Keep up the good work!


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