It's supposed to make life easier, but e-mail has become a big pain. Enter the wiki, new software that could change the way you communicate.
MWW Group, a public relations and marketing firm in East Rutherford, N.J., has 200 employees spread across eight states. And no matter what their jobs are, all of them have one thing in common: They're overwhelmed by e-mail. It's not just spam. A bigger problem is managing the scores of messages that go back and forth between colleagues collaborating on projects every day. The simple act of writing a press release, for example, can require as many as five people trading e-mails over the course of a week, often sending attachments of newly edited versions. It leads to lots of confusion. Which document is the current version? Who has made changes? Who still needs to weigh in? For the managers, keeping track of it all had become a time-consuming nightmare.
Tom Biro joined the company as director of new media strategies in August 2005 and was shocked at the mess the company's e-mail system had become. Fortunately, he had an answer: wikis. A wiki--it's Hawaiian for "fast"--is a piece of server software that allows users to create and update webpages easily and rapidly either through a hosted site on the Internet or on the company intranet. Since the pages are posted in a central location, anyone with access can log on and start editing. Even better, a team of employees can collaborate on a single document or spreadsheet in real time--trading ideas and criticisms, adding new features and images--without having to send documents and attachments back and forth. Wikis also keep a revision history, so you can always roll back and refer to an earlier version if necessary.
Biro had long used a personal wiki page to stay in touch with his friends around the country. Rather than trying to e-mail each other regularly, the group uses his wiki like a bulletin board, posting updates to pass along the latest news. He thought the same approach could solve MWW's e-mail woes. "With a wiki, everyone can be involved and still cut the volume of e-mail," he says.
A product of the open-source software movement, wikis have been around in one form or another for about a decade, used mostly by techies and hackers. The technology recently got some mainstream attention thanks to the notoriety of Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia, which is written, updated, and maintained by thousands of anonymous users, made headlines when John Seigenthaler Sr., a former administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, learned that his Wikipedia entry identified him as a suspect in the assassinations of both his former boss and John F. Kennedy. The entry, it turned out, had been written as a prank.
Such mischief is unlikely to take place on a corporate wiki, since you can restrict access to a limited group of people and even require passwords. In any case, business users don't seem frightened. Gartner Group, a research firm in Stamford, Conn., predicts that by 2009, wikis will be installed on half of all corporate networks.
In addition to the scores of free, open-source wikis available for download, new breeds of wiki software have been created specifically for business users. For as little as $10 a user per month, these beefed-up wikis can operate behind firewalls, integrate with network directories, and act as the central repository for all company communications--from telephone lists to HR forms to information about specific projects. And unlike regular webpages, which require a range of specialized skills to maintain, anyone familiar with Microsoft Word can create and update a wiki.
By eliminating the need to use e-mail to trade project updates, creative teams have been able to double their productivity.
At MWW Group, Biro tested about 10 different wikis before selecting PmWiki, a free, open-source product that he downloaded, configured, and plugged into his network last November. He started with the company's copywriters and designers, who almost instantly began treating their wiki pages like supercharged online whiteboards, to brainstorm and perfect the text of an ad campaign or the look of a logo. By eliminating the need to use e-mail to trade project updates, creative teams have been able to double their productivity, Biro says. The wiki also has slashed the number of meetings and conference calls: Anyone can simply pull up the wiki on his or her Web browser and get a full progress report at any time. The success of the creative teams prompted other departments in MWW to adopt wikis. Human resource managers began posting the latest benefit information on their wiki and the sales department began using one to keep better track of its prospect pipeline. "We finally started communicating efficiently," says Biro.
For those who aren't as tech savvy as Biro, vendors like JotSpot and Socialtext offer versions that are hosted over the Web. They're not free, but you don't have to configure or maintain them either. And they're not that expensive. Hosted wikis run from about $10 to $50 a user per month and can be used by anyone with Internet access. Bear in mind that free and hosted versions often lack the security muscle favored by corporate IT administrators. If you are working with sensitive customer data or proprietary information like patents, you might consider springing for something like Socialtext's Enterprise application, which gives administrators the ability to lock down and back up sensitive pages behind the company firewall. (See It's a Wiki World.)
Indeed, no company wants its wiki to suffer the same fate as Wikipedia. To avoid such snafus at MWW Group, Biro has implemented a wiki training program and drafted a code of conduct--similar to a corporate e-mail policy--that discourages things such as using profanity and emoticons like smileys. Biro also configured the wiki so that the company can decide who has permission to edit certain pages. For example, while anyone can access the human resources page to download forms, only members of the HR team can actually edit the pages.
So far, the company hasn't encountered major problems. And the wiki has cut the overall volume of internal e-mail by some 30% while rekindling employee use of MWW's intranet. "Now, rather than storing information in e-mail and on hard drives," says Biro, "people go straight to the wiki for answers."
Wikipedia compares hundreds of wikis and has links to more information: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_wiki_software. For a guide to launching and maintaining a wiki, go to to en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Wiki_Science:How_to_start_a_Wiki.
DARREN DAHL is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, NC.