Let’s take short stroll down memory lane. To 2007 to be exact. Back then, I was thinking a lot about wikis, writing about them, and using them fairly extensively. My thoughts then, as they are now, were about how to use wikis to write and deliver documentation.
For some reason or another, the thoughts and ideas that were floating around in my brain refused to coalesce into something concrete. Then came DocTrain UX 2007 in Vancouver. On day two of the conference I attended three sessions on wikis. The first of these was given by Alan J. Porter. That session gave my brain the kick it needed. All of the ideas and thoughts I mentioned started to come together.
Jump forward to 2010. I have in my hands a copy of Porter’s recently-published book WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit. It’s a short book, but it packs a lot of information into its 150-odd pages. It’s easily the best book on wikis that I’ve read in a long time.
A seemingly unlikely launching point
The approach that Porter takes with WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit is interesting. And it’s fun. Porter uses the metaphor of preparing and seeding a garden. And, if you think about it, a wiki is a lot like a garden. You need to do a lot of work up front before planting the seeds. Then, you need to nurture and maintain the garden.
All that work can be worthwhile when it comes time to harvest the information. And in 10 chapters Porter walks you through the phases that you need to go through in order to do that effectively.
He takes you through each phase of planning, implementing, and maintaining a wiki. But with any software implementation, you need to do a lot up front. I recently read a tweet about Sharepoint that applies to wikis: the failure of an implementation has little to do with the software and just about everything to do with the way the software was implemented.
Though not stated as such in WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit, this was (for me) one of the underlying lessons in the book.
Points of interest
There are so darned many in the book it’s difficult to know where to start. But here goes …
For me, one of the most interesting and useful chapter is the one that covers (among other things) user-generated content – chapter 9, “Harvesting the Information”. Porter looks at barriers to incorporating user-generated contenting into a wiki, but also how to manage credit, legal issues, and ownership of that content. His suggestions are for public-facing wikis, and Porter suggests that you need:
- Contributor guidelines
- A disclaimer or two
- A user agreement
These should, of course, be up front. He also suggests that you do some research about licensing and, if possible, discuss it with the legal department (if a company) or the governing board (if a project or non profit).
The case studies at the end of the book are definitely worth a close read. For the most part, they’re detailed and give you a good look at how businesses and organizations have successfully implemented a wiki. You’ll find that it’s not just about putting up a wiki. You need to focus on a specific business need to, for example, streamline processes or to create a specific workflow or strategy. Yes, wikis are definitely about more than just collaboration.
Also useful are the appendices that cover:
- Questions you should ask before starting a wiki project. Yes, you should ask and get satisfactory (or better) answers to each and every one of those questions
- The common barriers to adopting a wiki that organizations and people within those organizations erect
- The myths and realities of everyone being able to edit the content on a wiki
And those comparisons will be to Stewart Mader’s WikiPatterns. The two books cover much of the same ground, which is inevitable. But WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit isn’t merely WikiPatterns, redux.
WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit goes off on different tangents from Mader’s book. And it’s informed by a different set of experiences. I don’t see the books as competitors. Rather, they’re quite complementary.
It’s not about the technology
OK, I knew this before reading Porter’s book. But the reminder was nice.
So what are wikis about? Content. And that’s the biggest lesson of the book in my mind. For a wiki to succeed, you need to make the content interesting and you must prevent it from stagnating. To do that, you need to update content regularly and make sure that new content is added. You also need to:
- Encourage people to contribute
- Recognize or reward contributors
- Spotlight interesting content
That takes work. Porter advises taking a more personal rather than corporate approach to some of the content on a wiki. For example, get people to take part in a fun project that will get them used to working on a wiki. Something like creating their own personal space, with interesting information about themselves.
Once they get started that way, the hope is that they’ll move beyond their personal spaces and start contributing to the wiki as a whole. It won’t work with everyone. Then again, what does? But Porter insists that once people start using the wiki, keep encouraging them to do so. Don’t mandate using the wiki. It becomes more of a chore once you do that.
What I took away from this book
While I consider myself fairly experienced and knowledgeable about wikis, I still have a lot to learn. And WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit taught me a few things. I took away two valuable lessons from this book
First, work on a wiki is never finished. There’s always more to add. Even if there are pages that are locked down or baselined, there is still work to be done to maintain them. That’s where the WikiGardener comes in. And, yes, you’ll need one.
Second, you need to work to keep up whatever momentum you created when you rolled out the wiki. As Porter points out, when people stop updating a wiki it loses its relevance. Worse, it starts to be ignored. With a wiki, or any kind of content, that’s a stake through the heart.
As I said a number of paragraphs back, WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit is easily the best book on the subject that I’ve read in a while. My only quibble is that it doesn’t have as strong a focus on technical communication as I’d like. But that’s a very minor quibble and doesn’t detract from the usefulness and richness of the information in this book.
Plus, Porter’s writing style flow nicely and makes the book easy to read and digest. Porter is obviously a fan of wikis. But he isn’t blindly enthusiastic about wikis – he understands their strengths and weaknesses. When needed, he takes a more measured tone. That tone doesn’t dampen the book’s energy.
As for using the WIKI: Grow Your Own for Fun and Profit as a blueprint to set up a documentation wiki, I’m sure it can be done. I’d advise using it in combination with WikiPatterns and Writing in the Open. That way you’ll have an even stronger roadmap for implementing a wiki in your organization.
I’ll leave you with one quote from the book that sticks with me, and which sums up wikis for me:
If you have knowledge, then share it. The community will benefit.