By Philip Hogarth

The word wiki (pronounced wick-ee) is based on the Hawaiian term wiki wiki, meaning "quick", "fast", or "to hasten". On the Internet, a wiki is a Web site or similar online resource that allows users to add and edit content collectively. Wiki also refers to the collaborative software used to create such a Web site.

An example of a wiki in action, posted in a timely manner, and open to the scrutiny and editing of a business audience, can be found here, detailing the Fortune 500 blogging community.

In our Web 2.0 social media world, the wiki is the quiet, violin-playing cousin in an otherwise outgoing and high-profile family. The podcast and the blog are the gregarious siblings, easy to talk to and getting lots of attention. The wiki is often deployed behind a firewall or password, its knowledge available to a select group of users, and out of sight and scrutiny of the general public.

The wiki's most famous public incarnation is Wikipedia, the online open-content collaborative encyclopedia. Wikipedia is the world's largest online encyclopedia, available in many languages and containing over 940,000 articles in the English edition. What fuels Wikipedia's voracious growth is the participation and knowledge of its millions of users.

Wikipedia is one of the greatest public Betas in Internet history. Its sheer size and churn reveal the underlying wiki's structure and wiki philosophy's strengths and weaknesses. That it has become, over a few short years, the world's goto place for information, and that it threatens to make redundant information sources such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, ensures its place in history as a true social media phenomenon. However, due to its democratic setup, anyone can add to or edit existing Wikipedia content -- no PhD required. Scandals, such as the misattribution of responsibility for the RFK assassination or Congressional aides attempting to revise history have erupted over the past few months, indicating that some kind of peer review or moderation is required.

Still, for all of that, Wikipedia has held its own in an accuracy test against the Encyclopedia Britannica. Reviewers from Nature magazine assessed a range of scientific articles from both resources, from Dolly the Sheep to Archimedes' principle on buoyancy. "Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopedia," the journal said.

As a business tool, the wiki holds tremendous potential. It is a “just add knowledge” encyclopedia or database for ... anything. The ability to capture, store and disseminate corporate knowledge in a secure environment has been an enterprise goal for as long as there have been PCs. Corporate intranets and extranets have traditionally been difficult to plan and justify (knowledge management ROI is harder to track and verify than direct revenue-producing activities), and the skill set required to deploy and update intranets and extranets has tended to be bottle-necked in the IT department.

The business wiki is a different animal. It can be deployed in hours rather than weeks, and it can be updated by the entire company (or a selected subset) in minutes, with a minimum of training. Sample proposals, best practices, competitive intelligence, online portals and resources, partnership agreements, and anything else that is of use to new and existing staff, can be linked to or posted, making the business wiki an enterprise's corporate brain in short order.

A great public example of a business wiki can be found at smallbusiness.com. For a startup looking for resources and guidance, this is some resource! Federal grants, copyrights and trademarks, how to write a business plan -- it's all there and a lot more. And it’s not static. It's a living, collaborative effort, with entries as recent as today.

To summarize, the wiki is like the other members of the 2.0 family -- it begins to fulfill a promise made in the Web 1.0 days -- in this case, the promise of intranets and extranets to communicate corporate intelligence to the right people, in time for it to matter. A wiki provides a collaborative platform that is cheap, democratic (or as democratic as you want to make it), fast, and accessible from a web platform (anywhere). The business implications are tremendous.

We use a wiki at market2world to keep our corporate memory up-to-date and relevant. We access it to streamline our processes and give our best to our clients. And they don't even know it's there, doing its thing quietly and studiously, like your violin-playing cousin.

(Philip Hogarth is Director, Client Solutions at market2world communications inc.)

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