Henry (54) owns a medium sized company with about 150 employees in two different locations. His company is running quite well but he's having trouble with internal knowledge management. He's interested in how a wiki might help improve this. He's open to new technologies but experience taught him to be careful about promises made by software companies.
Lea (26) works for Henry as a Systems Administrator by day, but is the coder of a popular Open Source project by night. She's familiar with all kind of technical terms, able to read and write code and will ask primarily technical questions in this book. You might not be able to follow every detail she's asking about, but don't worry, that's not really needed.
Carl (43) is a foreman in Henry's company. He's an expert when it comes to the manufacturing line and fixing it's quirks and errors, but he isn't much of a computer geek. Except a bit of Word, Excel and Email he doesn't do much on the PC on his common workday. Outside the work he's the leader of the local dog agility club, organizing championships.
H: Alright, so we're here to talk about this wiki thing. But to be honest, I have no idea what it is. Can you give us a short introduction?
Me: Sure, the most simplest explanation is a wiki is a website that anyone can edit.
H: I'm not sure I understand.
Me: well, your company has a webiste, right?
Me: When I visit that website, I can read it and maybe use the contact from to send you a message. But there is no way for me to change what's written on that page. And that's probably exactly what you want - it's where you present your company and you want to decide what on there. But what if I see a spelling mistake? There's no way I can correct this. If your homepage would be a wiki I could simply click on its edit button, fix the mistake and your homepage would immeadiately have on spelling mistake less.
H: I see. But I can't let everyone edit my homepage. That would be madness! People might add all kind of bad things. This could never work.
Me: Yes and no. It might not really the best idea for your company homepage, but the basic principle can work. You probably heard of Wikipedia?
H: The encyclopedia website? Yes I came across it when researching some topics.
Me: Wikipedia is a Wiki that everyone can edit.
C: Everyone? Who makes sure things are correct?
Me: everyone. Wikipedia has a huge community of volunteers who monitor changes and revert anything that malicious and they have clear rules for citations. If you add some fact without backing it with a valid source, it will quickly be reverted again.
Me: Yes, that another important feature of a wiki. Every change is protocolled and you can always go back to the previous state of a page. This means no edit is ever lost in a wiki.
H: okay, so a website everyone can edit, but with a way to undo all malicious edits?
H: but isn't that a lot of work for nothing?
Me: surprisingly, despite of what it looks like the majority of people want to be good, so vandalism isn't as common as you might think.
H: hmm. okay, I still don't get what is so great about wikis.
Me: the great thing is that the low barrier to cooperate makes it easy to work together on any kind of text. this might be an encyclopedia as Wikipedia does, but it also might be anything else.
C: for example?
Me: a collection of articles about agility training? Or how to fix the conveyor belt of the packaging machine? Basically anything where you have some kind of documentation where knowledge is aggregated from different people.
H: I start to see where this might be going. But I'd like to learn a bit more first. Is this wikithing new?
Me: not at all. The first Wiki was created by Ward Cunningham in 1995 to document programming patterns.
L: commonly used way to program certain things, best practices, etc.
H: I see, please go on
Me: WikiPedia was founded in 1997 and is today the biggest wiki in the world ( million pages, languages). Wikis are used in many many companies as well Fortune 500 companies do have their own wikis ( source). But millions of wikis are used in other sectors as well.
H: So they are quite successful. But there has to be more that just having multiple people editing the same documents?
Me: Yes, the important secret of wikis is hidden in its name. The full name the first Wiki was Wiki Wiki. Which happens to be Hawaiian for quick.
H: So Wikis are quick? That's the secret? What does that even mean?
Me: Ward Cunningham chose this term to refer to two thing. First, pages could be quickly edited. Meaning that you could quickly change a page without you needing to know any special knowledge like HMTL.
H: HTML remind me again?
L: the “language” websites are “programmed” in
H: got it, so you could edit without this complicated expert knowledge…
Me: correct and the the second meaning of quick here is that your changes are immeadiately online. This is a big paradigm shift. There is no wait to have your changes approved. Good faith is always assumed, and only if you break this faith your change is reverted. The default is to accept the change. And having the change immeaditely visibile encourages a quick succession of edits. You edit, I can see what you did an improve on that, and you can react right away and improve my edits again. Wiki Wiki. quick.
L: You say pages can be edited without the need for HTML, but isn't it true that you still need some kind of markup syntax?
H: Markup Syntax?
Me: You're right. Whenever you want to write a text that contains more than plain words you need a way to markup or format the text. Eg. you might want to have headlines or make some words bold. When Cunningham created the fisrt wiki in 95 Webbrowsers where not as advanced as they are today and he needed to invent something that would be simple enough to be understand by everyone, something simpler than HTML. What he came up with is a simple convention of formatting rules. When surrounding a word with certain characters (like asterisks for example) it would result in a formatted output of a certain kind (eg. bold). Even though this was invented as a workaround for the lack of word like WYSIWYG editiing capabilities in browsers back then it turned out to be a huge advantage. Markup Syntax proved to be simple enough to not hinder novice users too much, quick enough to type (faster than moving your mouse every few words) and very easy to extend for doing new exciting things.
Non the less I propose to postpone the discussion about markup to a later point for now.
H: agreed. Is there anything else amazing about wikis we haven't talked about?
Me: Oh yeah. There's accidental linking.
H: What's that?
Me: Wikis provide a very easy way to link to pages. You simply surround a Word by the correct syntax and it gets automatically converted to a link linking to a page with the same name. And this happens even if that page doesn't even exist.
H: Wait, you link to something that doesn't exist?
H: So what happens when you follow the link?
Me: The wiki tells you that the page doesn't exist yet and asks if you want to create it.
H: Clever. But is that accidental?
Me: It isn't until you add a link and discover that this page already exists, because somebody else had the idea to create a page on it already.
C: Can you give an example?
Me: Sure, let's say you want to open a dependance in Germany. You're not yet sure in which city to do that and start a page listing the possible city. So you might list Munich, Hamburg, Berlin, Stuttgard. To gather more info about these possibilities you add link syntax chars around each of these cities. Creating links to 4 new pages you assume do not yet exist. To your surprise there is already a page for Berlin. Why? Because I linked to my home town from my profile page and started to fill this page with some info. We accidenally linked to the same topic from two different contexts. But you immeadiately profit from the info I already added to the wiki, without you knowing about the info even existed.
whiteboard grafic of linking