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Do Work Wikis Work?

Do Work Wikis Work? . / Credit: File-sharing image via Shutterstock

Technology is providing lots of new opportunities for companies to leverage shared employee knowledge. But does such technology always work?

Two University of Alberta researchers say corporate "wikis" can work, but only if the company lets them. Wikis are online documents that allow users to access, add, change or share information for the purpose of creating a collective knowledge base. If the wiki fits the corporation's culture and provides for the needs and interests of their users and editors, it can work, researchers said.

The researchers, Ph.D. candidate Lisa Yeo and Ofer Arazy, an assistant professor in the Alberta School of Business, say that using wikis as a form of corporate knowledge management can be beneficial. However, some concessions need to be made in terms of how wiki "knowledge" is posted to support people's needs for recognition with their company. If companies want their wiki to work, it cannot be held to rigid corporate constraints on knowledge sharing and management. Yeo and Arazy based their findings on recent research conducted while studying and working with project teams at a major technology corporation.

Yeo said that companies always seem to struggle with knowledge management, and finding a relevant and purposeful means of sharing information is often elusive. The wiki would seem to be a viable solution, she said, because it allows for informal yet dynamic teamwork, allowing users to input and share information in different areas and from different locations. Allowing input from multiple sources, such as other departments, allows for a larger field of knowledge and provides the potential for greater connectivity between colleagues across different corporate areas. Yet, she points out, there still needs to be some internal process that ensures the accuracy of what is being posted. Her research indicated that a rating system for entries may be an effective way of ensuring the validity of data.

As a contributor, if you know that more people read your work and rely on it, that makes you want to contribute more, Yeo said.

Part of the attraction of the wiki is its anonymity. Changes, especially in Wikipedia, are made incognito. But in the corporate world, Yeo said, showing potential and demonstrating knowledge are assets that help managers decide who should receive salary increases or promotions. However, she says that some contributors may be happy to share their knowledge anonymously simply because they can add to the knowledge management conversation. To allow both types of wiki contributors to coexist and flourish peacefully, companies may need to make some concessions in both the corporate structure and the wiki programming.

"There are a few places where we can change the wiki; we can do technical changes to the wikis that will help support some of the motivations or incentives that organizations have for individuals," Yeo said. "[But] let there be the drive-by edits for people who aren't completely involved in the team but know the right answer to something."

Whether or not an environment will be able to successfully develop a wiki comes down to the corporation's culture. Companies that work within rigid silos would likely not find much success using wikis because information sharing is an important part of wiki culture. Knowing how to successfully work with others is also a core skill when working with wiki development, Yeo said. For companies that truly want to embrace the wiki experience, flexibility and openness are crucial to the success of this type of project.

"There are certain things in the corporate culture that you want to change to meet the wiki way of work, but you don't want to force the wiki way into the constraints of certain organizations," she said. "The nice side is this open flexibility, but if you don't have an organization and a corporate culture that is supportive of that, I don't think that it is going to be very successful, no matter how hard you try."

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