Wikis are making Joel Postman’s worklife easier -- and greener.

Since adopting wiki technology at Eastwick Communications, a 40-person public-relations firm in Mountain View, Calif., Postman has seen the e-mail traffic in his office fall by 40 percent.

Using wiki, says Postman, “Any of our people can edit a set of common documents,” such as press releases and other media materials. “That cuts down on e-mail traffic and confusion.”

And recently, Postman, director of emerging media for Eastwick, was able to plan an entirely paperless press event for his client, Fujitsu America, which was announcing an environmental initiative. When reporters showed up for the event, they were given USB flash drives featuring fully downloadable press kits -- press releases, frequently asked questions, and other materials.  

“Part of managing that event for them involved not using paper," Postman says. "That was important, and we were able to do it because we used wiki.”

No, they’re not just like Wikipedia

Wiki, from the Hawaiian word for “fast,” is a type of computer software that allows users to edit and link webpages. Perhaps the most famous open-source wiki is Wikipedia, the wildly popular online encyclopedia that has literally millions of contributing writers.

It is perhaps because of Wikipedia that wikis haven’t taken off in the workplace. Wikis’ strong identification as an open-source medium has led many companies to worry over who has access to them, and whether material on them could be sabotaged or altered without one’s knowledge. Making changes to open-source wikis also can be difficult, requiring some knowledge of wikispeak.

But that’s changing. A recent Gartner report forecast that 50 percent of all U.S. corporations will have wikis by 2009.

Like many products with open-source roots, such as voice over Internet protocol, there are now for-a-fee wiki products that offer more security and ease of use.

Some good reasons to consider wikis

Companies such as Socialtext and Australian-based Atlassian offer software and hosted wiki products that limit access and allow participants to edit them as easily as they would e-mail, notes Jeff Brainard, director of product marketing with Palo Alto-based Socialtext. In addition, wiki participants can track changes and/or receive e-mail notifying them when changes have been made. Brainard says their hosted product is the most popular, costing about $4-5 per user per month.

Other good reasons to choose wikis include:

  • Time Savings. Wiki does mean “fast,” after all. Wikis have a collaborative advantage over e-mail and better tracking functions than Microsoft Word. “They can accelerate project cycle times by cutting down on meetings, conference calls and e-mail volleyball,” notes Brainard.
  • No More Memory Loss. The ability to tag wiki pages allows users to recall those great ideas from a co-worker, the kind that used to languish in the e-mail queue and die off after 60 days. Wikis are a way to “capture group memory,” says Brainard.
  • Reduces E-mail. The ability of groups to collectively edit and develop documents can save hundreds of back-and-forth posts.
  • Better Venue for Client Collaboration. Wikis allow companies to work more directly with their clients on developing a finished product.
  • Younger Workers Already Use Them. Workers under 30 have grown up with YouTube, MySpace, and other Web 2.0 communication tools. They are used to the wiki concept, and take to it easily, notes Matt Cain, vice president and lead e-mail analyst at Gartner.

The bottom line: it’s time to stop fearing the wiki. With today’s features, the wiki is one Web 2.0 tool that deserves a good look.

SIDEBAR: Wiki Providers to Watch

Socialtext offers software and hosted wiki solutions for companies that feature the ability to secure wiki access and track changes.

Atlassian offers Confluence, enterprise wiki software.

StructuredWikis offers wikis for businesses based on open-source platforms.