The amazing Wikis

From the CIO Council to the CIA, the lightweight collaboration platform is taking hold'but it's not a no-brainer

We tell people, 'If you are going to make a presentation, please post your file. ' ' Brand Niemann, Semantic Interoperability Community of Practice co-chair

Rick Steele

While monthly meetings of the Collaborative Expedition Workshop normally fill a pretty big room at the National Science Foundation's Ballston, Va., headquarters, July's attracted nearly double the usual attendance. It turned out folks from a wide swath of intelligence, defense and civilian agencies wanted to know how they could use an emerging form of online collaboration. The topic of the workshop? Wiki software.

The workshops are put on by the General Services Administration and the CIO Council to identify new, effective collaborative technologies. Wikis proved a natural fit. A wiki is a type of Web site that lets users edit content directly in their Web browser. Disarmingly simple, wikis can serve as a hub for groups with dispersed members to share information. They can also serve as an easy way to store information that others in an office can consult and update.

According to Mark Roseman, founder of commercial wiki provider CourseForum Technologies of Guelph, Ontario, 'wikis work really well in situations where people are just trying to work together in a fashion that suits them better.'

Online collaboration is nothing new, of course. What makes wiki software so unique is that it does not require specialized software on the users' part, nor does it require much training.

In late 2002, IT research firm IDC of Framingham, Mass., conducted a study that found e-mail was by far the most popular collaboration tool, used in more than 90 percent of the projects surveyed. People working together on projects simply exchanged notes and sent files as attachments rather than using dedicated collaborative software, such as Microsoft's Groove or EMC Corp.'s eRoom. E-mail required no special software beyond what most people already had.

While it's easy to use, the downside to relying on e-mail is that 'all the value is kept in people's private inboxes,' said Ross Mayfield, chief executive officer and founder of commercial wiki provider Socialtext of Palo Alto, Calif.

Like e-mail, wikis require no special software; only a Web browser. By using a wiki in addition to, or instead of, e-mail, files can be stored in a central location, with very little work or technical expertise. 'With the way people use wikis, things stay transparent and impermanent. You can always update information any time with a single click,' Mayfield said.

Anyone with a browser can edit a wiki page. (Setting up a wiki is something else; see story, next page.) A wiki page looks identical to a regular Web page, except that somewhere is a button marked 'Edit.' Click on that button and you get a plain-text version of that page, in which you can make changes. When you're finished, just click on the Save button and your work gets added to that page.

Contrast this with something like IBM's Lotus Notes or other commercial collaboration packages. In such a case, each user needs the Lotus software, which could prevent casual or cross-agency collaboration. 'Plus the training requirement is huge,' Roseman said. 'The nice thing with wikis is that you can structure the space the way you want, not the way the software wants you to.'

Government use

Like other grassroots technologies, wikis have quietly permeated the fabric of government IT.

Last year, when the Federal CIO Council's Architecture and Infrastructure Committee set out to revise the Federal Enterprise Architecture Data Reference Model, it used two wikis, one public and one exclusive to participants. The wiki was provided by CIM Engineering Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., through an existing contract with GSA.

Hashing out a new DRM was an onerous task involving 130 participants from around the country. Many of the individuals were strangers and the material was formidable.

The wiki format offered an easy way to post and cross-index documents, as well as archive e-mail discussions, said Michael Daconta, who was the technical lead for the group and is now vice president of enterprise data management for Oberon Associates Inc. of Manassas, Va. Although the wiki was not instrumental to the success of the group, it did streamline operations. The group was able to quickly post working-level documents for public viewing. And because it required little formal training, participants could quickly start contributing.

At the Collaborative Expedition Workshop, D. Calvin Andrus, the chief technology officer for the Central Intelligence Agency's Center for Mission Innovation, said the CIA has recently begun using wikis to share information. At first, the CIA used wikis internally. It has about 12,000 pages scattered throughout its top-secret network, Andrus said. Increasingly, though, the agency is using the technology to collaborate with other intelligence offices, Andrus said.

Analysts from the CIA's Office of Iraqi Analysis are devoting time to assembling what they know into a collection of wiki pages, collectively know as the Intellipedia. The wiki pages can then be made available to other intelligence agencies and the analysts themselves continue to update the pages.

The CIO Council's Semantic Interoperability Community of Practice also relies on wiki software provided by CIM Engineering. In conjunction with other groups, the council sometimes holds conferences and helps guide a number of pilot projects. The wiki has been essential to facilitating work before, during and after the group's workshops, said co-chairman Brand Niemann.

Before an event, the group uses a wiki to hash out details such as speaker schedules and discussion topics. During the conference, participants refer to the wiki for directions, dial-in numbers, schedules and posted presentations. Afterwards, the wiki serves as a record of the event and a document repository.

The community of practice had used various collaboration tools before settling on a wiki, Niemann said. They weren't as easy for newcomers to use, which created a bottleneck, forcing Niemann and co-chair Susan Turnbull to handle all the shared material.

'Everything had to come to us, and we had to post everything,' Niemann said. 'Now we distribute the workload. We tell people, 'If you are going to make a presentation, please post your file.' '

Leonard Dorfman, vice president of product marketing for commercial wiki provider eTouch Systems Corp. of Fremont, Calif., said that once they're introduced to an enterprise, wikis usually proliferate. Once a technically minded group, say a staff of engineers, installs a wiki for a particular project, that wiki software is often adopted by other groups over time.

Nature of collaboration

Wikis are so straightforward that it's difficult to assess the changes they could make to social collaboration overall. In many ways, a wiki doesn't change the nature of collaboration, it just streamlines record-keeping. 'It was certainly no silver bullet,' Daconta said of the DRM wiki. While it offered a quick way to post material, the wiki did not alter the process of developing the DRM itself.

A common aspect of collaborative workgroups is that many people offer some input, but there are usually a few people who serve up the lion's share. Implicit in the wiki's ease-of-use is the assumption that it lowers the barrier of participation, thereby fostering a more democratic environment. But when reflecting on the group dynamics of developing the DRM, Daconta found it similar to large group projects he had participated in before.

'The success of the wiki directly relates to the comfort level and the training of the group,' Daconta said. Although wikis are easy to use, some training is still required to handle details like markup. Turnbull periodically holds phone seminars on how to use the CIM wiki so participants in various government projects quickly get up to speed. So the technical barrier to online collaboration can be lowered through wikis, but not eliminated. 'The problem is your non-techies will shy away from it,' Daconta said, noting that today's wiki editing software is still primitive.

Others, however, see wikis portending great organizational change. Andrus is one who can see how wikis could dramatically change reporting routines for the CIA, which must collect and analyze data from around the world. He admits that the organization is now outgunned by Web users, at least when it comes to basic fact-gathering and reporting.

As an example, he points to a Wikipedia [www.wikipedia. com] entry on last summer's terrorist bombings in London. Within 90 minutes of the bombing, a Wikipedia page was posted about the event and was updated almost continually in the days that followed. 'There was no editor-in-chief. No one told anybody to do this. [People] took it upon themselves to make this entry. They were empowered,' Andrus said.

This approach is a powerful contrast to the CIA's routine. The usual process of the CIA is to collect information, write a report, carefully edit the report to eliminate errors and push the copy through production. 'That is a yesterday's-news-tomorrow paradigm,' he said.

Wiki software points to a new model, Andrus noted: Instead of editing and then publishing material, the material is published first and edited later.

Andrus isn't alone in advocating this approach. At last spring's LinuxWorld Conference in Boston, Peter Thoeny, who manages the Twiki Wiki software, also expressed a similar sentiment. Managers usually first see wikis as chaotic, he noted. They want the content to be perfect before it's posted. But overall, it is more efficient to post new material early and then revise it often. Thoeny noted that this is the approach used by embedded software maker Wind River Software, which has an internal corporate wiki that, with over 85,000 pages, is updated 22,000 times a month.

Using such an approach, Andrus said, 'Once we get a critical mass, we can change the way we do intelligence forever.'

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