The Wiki Chasm

After my recent ramblings about wikis I got an email a few days ago from one of the developers of a new hosted wiki service inviting me to check out their service.

The service was quite interesting, and had a few nice tweaks on some of the standard wiki features, but something unidentifiable was missing, and it got me thinking about where wikis are in general, and where they could or should be.

Although wikis have been around for a long time, they’re still mostly geek technology that hasn’t “crossed the chasm” yet. I believe they certainly have the potential to do so, and be hugely disruptive en route, particularly in the whole sphere of corporate knowledge management, in all of its various guises and disguises.

There are a few companies which seem to be actively targeting this corporate space. Jotspot, in particular, seem to have some of the features that might enable them to get a few big ticket sales. (Of course, the primary function of tools like integration is presumably to assure credibility when talking to Fortune 500 companies – whether customers might actually use such functionality, and my guess is that most won’t, it certainly positions Jotspot as a serious enterprise player). But yet Joe Kraus is clearly also excited by the possibility of the Long Tail, and is looking for ways to tap into that. Their offer of a free hosted wiki for open-source projects is certainly a nice attempt to get the early adopters on board.

I certainly wish them good luck with this, but I’m not sure that, at this stage, the same company is going to be able to sell into the large corporates, and also pick up the long tail. The market is too early, and the technology is too disruptive. As Hugh at gapingvoid points out again and again, the problem with technology implementations is usually a social one, rather than a technical one, and this is rarely more true than with so called “social software”.

We’ve used corporate wikis in several organisations now, and for several purposes, and the biggest issues are most certainly to do with getting staff to embrace the entire concept of wiki, rather than wrestling with technology. We’ve been reasonably successful at this, but it’s been in small companies with little corporate politics. I’ve certainly been in several organisations where the concept of a completely open knowledge base that anyone can not just view, but add to, and edit, however they want, would fill a significant proportion of the staff with horror.

I think the easiest way to get around this will be smuggle wikis in the back door. I imagine a Jotspot implementation that appears to be little more than a new front end into a pre-existing customer database, but which a few select employees start to realise can be extended in interesting ways. Gradually the power of being able to add new semi-structured information on top of the database begins to sink in, and before anyone ever realises that they actually have a “wiki”, it’s become the definitive source of useful information about a whole variety of things that were previously outside the scope of the CRM system.

But simultaneously I think there is a huge opportunity for the smaller, built from the ground up, single purpose wiki. More and more conferences have a conference wiki where attendees can collaboratively create and refine a guide to the conference. When we hosted YAPC::Europe last year, we took this a stage further, and invited prospective speakers to propose their talks via the wiki to seek attendee comments well in advance. This wasn’t as successful as we liked, but several of the speakers told us that the feedback they had received from this helped them prepare better talks.

At the minute, however, it’s still too hard to set up a wiki. Everyone is working on making it much easier, and I’m sure I’ll get email from lots of people telling me that their product has finally solved this, and you can have your wiki up and running in 30 seconds. As most of the people setting up wikis at the minute are techies, the problem isn’t that noticeable. But we have lots of small business clients who have little to no technical expertise, who would really benefit from a wiki. But at the minute they would either have to pay someone like us to set one up, or try one of the hosted wiki services.

But, of course, the hosted services instantly hit the credibility and security issues involved in hosting someone’s private data. These sorts of companies really want their wiki inside their firewall. They’re certainly not going to trust a company they’ve never really heard of, and have no business relationship with, to host all their critical business data.

So we’re still in a dead end. Lots of small organisations would benefit from a wiki, but they don’t know it yet, and aren’t prepared for the social changes that would be needed in their organisation. And for those that do know this, and are ready for it, the process is far too complex. And if they do get up and running, but later realise they’ve picked the wrong implementation, then they’re in even more trouble, because almost every wiki out there uses slightly different formatting and mark-up rules, and even if you can export your data, nothing will actually import it correctly.

This, of course, all adds up to a gigantic opportunity for people willing to solve all these issues. Few of them are simple. The combination of them all certainly isn’t. It’s not going to be an easy ride for the companies that try. But if were, then everyone would be doing it.

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