The Business Wiki

Knock down information silos and improve operational efficiency

By Charles Groce, Head Engineer/Developer

I recently had the displeasure of having a dryer belt slip in my laundry room, rendering the dryer useless in the middle of my weekend home cleaning session. Being the son of a jet engine mechanic, I decided to break out the tool set and learn something new. Off to Google’s search engine I went, and within 20 minutes I had learned everything I needed to know to replace the slipped belt (this is the belt that rotates the drum). One trip to Lowe’s and two hours later, I was back in business!

The “search engine” is an extremely powerful tool that has changed not only the way we learn, shop, and read, it has in fact changed entire industries. Programmers today can Google programming problems and quickly access code samples that solve peculiar problems. Ten or fifteen years ago, good programmers had their own library of books. I had nearly 20 books on the Java programming language by the time I finished my undergraduate degree in 2002.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a search engine specific to the information that defines your business? You could use it to find information about critical business processes, to find notes about specific customer needs, even retrieve a diagram of your operational layout, so new people can find their way around. Training resources for new personnel could be found there, along with solutions to common IT or equipment problems. Your company’s mobile phone directory, vendor information, compliance information, whatever you like could be found quickly and easily using the power of a search engine.

Enter MediaWiki, the Internet platform which powers Wikipedia.com, the 5th most visited website in the world. In addition to allowing anyone to freely use Wikipedia, the nice people behind the website also allow the open source community to use and write extensions for the platform for free. The result is an extremely powerful and flexible tool for organizations of all sorts to document critical processes and efficiently satisfy staff information needs.

In short, MediaWiki is an open source documentation system that can be hosted on a web server by your ISP or even in your IT closet. Since it’s web-based, there is no software installation required for users beyond a simple web browser like Firefox or Chrome. The system is built from the ground up for ease of use and for the quick and efficient sharing and retrieval of information.

Every company should have a “wiki”, and it should contain all of the information which should be shared across your entire staff. The word wiki comes from the Hawaiian word for quick and if you implement a company wiki you’ll see why: businesses that have their operational processes and other information organized in a wiki run more efficiently. They run faster.

You can think of your company wiki as an internal-only website which has a landing page and a search engine. How would you organize a landing page to your internal staff-only audience? It would be organized according to department; after all your company is made up of people who are divided into departments. Each department would then get their own sub-landing page, and from there the information needs will be broken up further for easy, intuitive browsing. Your wiki should be a reflection of your company’s people and their needs.

Every wiki includes an extremely powerful search engine, with both basic and advanced search features. Getting your company’s information categorized properly from the outset is less critical to a successful wiki deployment simply due to the fact that everything is quickly accessible through the wiki search engine.

Deploying a company wiki can be a great team-building exercise, and is an excellent opportunity to address information needs across the entire organization. In doing so, you will discover that while some mission-critical information is freely available to everyone in the company, other information is locked in an “information silo”, accessible only through a member of staff or tucked away in a lesser known folder on your network. Information silos are inefficient, bad for collaboration, and should be knocked down whenever possible.

One excellent place to get started with a company wiki is by using it as an opportunity to document your IT setup, and to build a self-help portal of the software systems that drives your business. Another great place to start is by having key personnel document what everyone needs to know when they go on vacation on the wiki.

In my five years as an IT manager at a commercial printing facility in Michigan, I created several hundred articles specific to commonly occurring IT problems on our company wiki. These were later used by non-technical members of staff to solve their own problems and freed up my time to do other things like work directly with customers, assist in sales efforts, and explore ways to expand our services beyond print and into areas of technology that complemented our business. “Did your desktop printer suddenly stop working when you tried to run this Crystal Report out of our MIS? Check the wiki and get back to me if you can’t solve the problem on your own.” I called co-workers who routinely solved their own IT problems in this way my “Wiki Champions”.

For front office users, the wiki will seem to take on a life of its own and become a tool of everyday use after a few months. For business owners and managers, the wiki creates value out of the information currently locked away in the heads of more experienced staff or hidden away inside company networks. This protects the company’s operations from the effects of unexpected turnover and means the business runs smoother.

Having mission-critical information stored in Word documents deep inside your company network, hand written on notes which are taped to the monitor behind a locked office door, or trapped behind a phone call to a staff member simply isn’t operationally efficient. Time to move on to a wiki.

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