Wiki, a Subversive Technology

by Charles Miller on January 27, 2006

Atlassian has recently become a victim of the poker craze that's been sweeping the world. After five hard-fought night-time games (a worry, since after the next we run out of Star Wars movies to name them after), and two winner-takes-all lunchtime lightning tournaments, it was decided that what we really needed was a leaderboard.

What happened next should be pretty obvious to anyone who runs a wiki at work. An email was sent around the office directing everyone to a page on our extranet into which they could record their winnings (or losings) for each night, and rankings in the lunchtime tournaments1.

A note to my readers: much of what follows will sound like marketing material for my employer. Normally this is a subject I avoid on my blog, because the one thing that almost all rah-rah my-software-rocks isn't-this-cluetrain-thing-cool blogs have in common is that they bore me to tears. So don't worry, I'm not making a habit of this, I just felt that in this particular case (and maybe one sequel), I had something interesting to say.

While I was adding my details to the page (after taking part in three games, I'm $25 up) I was left wondering: what would a company without a wiki do2? In the mood to beat around a few straw men, I came up with a few alternatives.

1 Somebody tabulates all the scores into an Excel document and sticks it on the share drive, where it quickly gets lost amongst all the other spreadsheets.

2 The local Notes™ guru spends all afternoon on an application where everyone can enter their winnings or losses into a Notes database, and have the results nicely formatted... or more likely the guru says this is what he's going to do, but finding the spare afternoon isn't as easy as he thought.

3 The company's Intranet gatekeeper has everyone email him their scores, and puts them up on the web. Six months later, he has a mail folder full of pending updates that he hasn't quite had time to process yet because he has a dozen servers to keep running, and poker isn't exactly on the critical business path.

OK, so you get the idea. But it's only poker results, right? It's not like it's anything particularly important to the company that would justify the existence of the wiki.

Except it is, and it does, because our poker standings page on the extranet represents, in a microcosm, every little bit of information that a company's employees think is worth writing down, if only there were a convenient place to do so. This is one half of the corporate wiki's raison d'etre, and is the reason that so many of our customers tell us how quickly "Just put it in Confluence" and its converse "Look for it in Confluence" have become almost cliché in their organisation.

Wiki is a subversive technology.

If you'd asked anyone ten years ago what would happen if you put a website online that anybody could edit without restriction, I doubt the answer you would have got was: "It will go on to become, for a while, one of the most interesting places to discuss software engineering, and spawn thousands of similar sites, including a million-page, surprisingly accurate free encyclopaedia."

Wiki works because it breaks down established roles: the distinction between writer and reader, between the consumers of information and the information gatekeepers. This is why the wiki had to originate outside the existing ecosystem of corporate knowledge management applications. Companies write software that reflect their own structure, and wikis succeed on their ability to create their own structure.

This is part of the reason that it's difficult to cold-sell a wiki to a company. The successes of public wiki sites help (for those who have heard of them), but the selling-point of a wiki is the readiness of people to work with one once it's there, something that's really hard to explain a priori. (Which is why we love seeing people upgrading their licenses. It's proof that the wiki is virally taking over.)

Writing an enterprise wiki is a balancing act. To a large extent, the impetus of the business will be to turn the wiki back, piece by piece, into the rigid document management systems it replaced. If you keep acceding to their wishes, you'll end up with something that is, once again, too much of a hassle for anyone to want to keep their information on.

Some battles, of course, you can't fight. The first thing a business will look for in a product are its security features, so having a decent permissioning system is almost a given. Still, I do my best to recommend that the most beneficial thing one can do with such a system is to use it as little as possible.

In the end, of course, the trick is to try to look beyond the feature being requested to the problem that the user wants solved. If it is truly a problem, and not a case of "that's just not how we do things around here", there will probably be a wiki-friendly way to solve it.

1 It turns out that while he's never been the biggest winner on any one night, Mike has been the best player overall, never leaving with less money than he arrived with. I'd suspect that poker nights were part of a subtle plan to recoup a portion of our wages, if it weren't for the fact that we more than make up for it by drinking the office beer.

2 Sadly, the acronym WWACWOWD? is just not catchy enough to market.

Previously: A Tale of Two Googles

Next: Recruiters. Grr.