Getting started with wikis

One of the first things I like to do when I begin any engagement  or project is to set up a Wiki. Wikis are a great collaboration tool, and getting better. I like them because they are so simple to use its easy to get people to cooperate.

A wiki is basically a website that is meant to be designed and edited by a group of people. If you have a wiki, it means that you and your team, friends, whomever you designate as authorized can come, type, edit, and upload docs and meda. Don’t be alarmed by the idea of editing a web page. If you can use email and Microsoft Word, then you can easily use a wiki.

Early wikis had little formatting capability (unless you wanted to use html tags, and I don’t), and were really designed by and for engineers. But they’ve improved. In just the last six months, wiki tools have become more flexible, easier to use, and a lot nicer to look at.

Wikis can solve 2 very common problems:

1. The “What’s the Latest” problem: You’ve probably done this – email a doc out to a group, edit, resend. Things get out of date and out of synch. Nobody knows what the “latest” is. Post it to a wiki and bam – every one knows what the latest is. Every one is literally on the same page. Not only that, but whatever format you’ve got it in, and whatever email products everyone is using, the file won’t get munched in the transfer.

Having a wiki is like like having a shared notebook. You and your team can each post anything from minor comments to fully formalized docs. Everyone has equal access to them. I’ve managed large and simple software projects this way, along with the design and permitting process of a house.

2. The “Where is that thing” problem: Because its so easy to put stuff up there, people actually put stuff up there.. Feature ideas, minor issues that need attention, meeting notes, Aha! moments. The number of the pizza place. The team roster. Whatever it is you’re looking for now, you can stick up there, and then you’ll know where to look. Where is it? On the wiki.

Getting started.

Getting started is pretty much as easy as going to the wiki website of your choice, signing up, and dithering around with the buttons. Your second wiki will take you less than 30 seconds to set up. Your first may take all of 10 minutes, if you aren’t really used to the software. There are wikis that you can run on your own computer or on your own servers, but fortunately, there are plenty you can just go to, create an account, and you’re in.

Once you’re in, you can edit pages, add pages, upload stuff and link stuff together. Invite your teammates to join. They get an account, then they can edit the pages too.

Cautions:

1. The biggest problem I come across in a wiki is that while everything is up there, it can sometimes be hard to find. You may want to come to some kind of agreement with your group as to where you’ll put various categories of stuff.

2. Wysiwyg formatting is still not as good as it could be. We’re used to word and power point, and we’d like that level of sophistication in our tools. Google? Got a minute? I expect this to improve significantly and soon.

Free wiki’s to try:

These are just a few in a relatively crowded field.

http://www.wikispaces.com – this is my tried and true, but its not the most beautiful, nor does it have the nicest wysiwyg editor anymore. Has ad supported free, and paid, private offerings.

http://www.wikidot.com – love this. nicer editor, nicer looking. Free. Embedable widgets. Great formatting for academia: footnote, bibliography and formulae are all nicely handled.

http://www.pbwiki.com – also very nice. embedable widgets

or, if you have more elaborate collaboration needs, you can try: http://www.basecamphq.com, which includes, to do lists, time tracking, milestones, and more complete project management features.

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