Wikis provide easier, faster comms

The blog's glory days as the hot new employee communications tool might soon be coming to an end. Say hello to the wiki.

The blog's glory days as the hot new employee communications tool might soon be coming to an end. Say hello to the wiki.

A wiki is best described as a dynamic website in which any user can add pages, modify content, and comment on existing messages. Think of it as a communal website for people who aren't computer geeks. It typically does not require a web master or administrator to design and upload pages, but gives that power to any user of the site. Anyone who has a web browser can access a wiki and add new content or pages. The name comes from the Hawaiian language, where "wiki wiki" means "super fast." Anyone who has used a wiki understands that origin immediately.

Although the first wiki was created nearly a decade ago by software programmers, wikis haven't been able to break through the noise created by the blog frenzy until recently. Communicators experimenting with internal blogs aimed at employees have for the most part been disappointed in the results and the one-way nature of the tool, according to a recent study Edelman conducted of emerging employee communications trends.

The wiki, which is more interactive and dynamic, is slowly but surely breaking out of the software-development realms and into mainstream employee communications mix. Look no further than the fact that Microsoft recently hired Ward Cunningham, the man who started the first wiki in 1995.

The implications of the wiki's rise and its potential for improving how companies communicate with employees are enormous. Because wikis allow users to index information, they are the perfect platform for knowledge sharing among a group of employees or for an entire organization. Motorola, British Telecom, Disney, and SAP have used wikis to organize information among far-flung employees.

One major US airline recently developed a wiki for use by a team launching a new product. The team members use the wiki to exchange real-time information on customer response and share knowledge about ongoing employee issues. As these team members travel the country, they log on to the wiki from any internet connection to post new information, check to see if an issue they just ran across has already been identified or resolved, or raise new issues from the field that require the team's attention. Edelman is also using a wiki to organize data on best-in-class employee engagement practices; team members around the world upload case studies, research findings, models, and templates so any of the firm's clients can have immediate access to the latest and greatest in employee engagement trends.

Best yet is the absurdly low cost of a wiki. A very basic one can be set up for no cost, and a wiki starter package with 25 MB of storage space can cost as low as $4.95 a month. But don't let the low cost fool you - many entrepreneurs are already raking in the bucks on hosting wikis, one of the best examples being Socialtext in Palo Alto, CA. Its founder charges $30 a month to host and maintain a wiki, and expects to haul in more than $1 million this year.

Some communicators might hesitate to introduce a wiki because all users registered on the site can edit and add content. However, most wikis contain functionality that foils would-be vandals or those who might innocently post incorrect information. One of the wiki's best qualities is that previous versions of pages are stored and can be recalled if a problem is found. Another feature allows a user to see every person who has previously posted on that page. But perhaps most important is the wiki's collaborative nature, which makes it practically self-correcting. Companies that are particularly concerned about content accuracy can appoint gatekeepers to monitor changes and ban users who cause problems. The ability to make changes also can be limited to those users who are granted password-protected access for additional security.

It's only a matter of time before more organizations create wikis for internal use as the barrage of e-mail reaches a breaking point, and as projects increasingly move across continents and time zones. Some have even described the wiki as a "virtual whiteboard" because of its ability to harness and organize information among far-flung employees.

Because wikis allow users to move that e-mail traffic into another format where the information is automatically and dynamically stored and organized, it eliminates the need to keep track of long e-mail threads or thousands of archived messages. That is reason enough to make "wiki" part of your company's employee communications vocabulary.

  • Christopher Hannegan is an SVP at Edelman and director of its employee engagement practice.

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