Several of my posts talk about uses of semantic wikis.  In fact, my company is largely based upon a semantic wiki platform, called Symcordia™.  But the more people I talk to, the more I realize that:

  1. While just about everyone has used Wikipedia as a reference source, few people have ever really thought about what a wiki is – what are its strengths and limitations?
  2. When people visit a Wikipedia article, they almost never look at the Talk page associated with that article, and have no idea of the value that may be hidden within the Talk pages, or why they exist.
  3. When people visit a Wikipedia article, they rarely look at the Page Ratings, or rate a page (you can rate Wikipedia pages based on the degree to which it is Trustworthy, Objective, Complete, Well-written.)
  4. Occasionally, I come across someone who says, “I don’t use Wikipedia – the content cannot be trusted!”  (These same people trust network television news!)

What is a Wiki?

Here’s a nice little video that describes the basics of a wiki:

Wikis – More Than Just Knowledge Capture!

If you look beyond the basic encyclopedia article in Wikipedia and examine a typical Talk Page, you will find it provides a place for people knowledgeable and passionate about a topic to debate that topic and how best to present it to readers.  Similarly, it provides a place for those with knowledge of Wikipedia’s standards and editorial policies to ensure an article meets quality and integrity standards.

If you look at the Page Ratings (not all pages have these – this is a fairly recent feature and is being expanded in functionality) you will find a place to rate a page based upon its trustworthiness, objectivity, completeness and clarity.  Perhaps, even more importantly, you can see how others have rated it.

Why Semantic Wikis?

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia – a compendium of articles.  As such, it deals with a single class of knowledge – the encyclopedia article.  For most organizations (for example, a business or an IT group) there will be dozens of different classes of knowledge to organize and represent.  For example, the diagram below is a simplified entity-relationship model for the knowledge inherent in a typical IT organization.  It comprises entities such as processes, services, metrics, roles, competencies, and so on, and shows the relationships among them.  So you know, for example, that if you are going to define a new process, you will need to define roles needed by that process, and if you are going to define roles, you need to define the competencies needed to fill a given role.

A semantic wiki lets you assign semantic properties to a page to reflect these different knowledge classes.  It also enables you to have page templates for each class of knowledge content.  This simplifies and encourages knowledge capture and use and ensures consistency within knowledge types.  This helps you to organize the content, and even to differentiate between two types of content:

  1. Content that must be of extremely high integrity (an operational process, say) and therefore the entire organization needs to understand its current state of development and its governance process. This type of content can and should be designed and made consistent in appearance to increase organizational clarity. The ER Model above represents this type content which tends to be at the ‘core’ of IT in most companies and encourages convergent thinking.
  2. Content that is more exploratory in nature (pages for a Community of Practice, say). This type of content doesn’t necessarily have a lot of pre-defined structure or governance in its development. It emerges over time as people brainstorm and collaborate. This type of content is typically at the ‘edge’ of an organization’s processes and encourages divergent thinking.

The graphic above (from Symcordia™, our semantic wiki platform) shows a typical example of the semantic properties of an IT Capability page.  The Property ‘Status’ can be changed, say, from Operational to Proposed to Under Discussion to reflect its current status.  This change can even be automatically controlled by workflow – the act of changing an Operational page, will change the semantic status of that page to Proposed, alert the appropriate page Owner and Governance Entity and move the page through its governance workflow until it reaches Production status.

We use the same screen real estate – the Property Box – to capture and show page ratings.  Again, the fact that each page can be of a different semantic class allows you to easily adjust the ratings questions based upon the page type.  (My post on how my rock band is using a semantic wiki to enable our learning and development illustrates this nicely.)

Is Microsoft’s SharePoint Really a Wiki?

SharePoint is often referred to by those in the know as a WINO – Wiki In Name Only.  For a rich discussion on this point, I’ll point you to an informative post by my business partner, Roy Youngman.  The other aspect of SharePoint in practice is that its strengths as a document management system tend to reinforce document-centric behaviors.  A common result, given that “old habits die hard” is that people tend to create and attach Word, PowerPoint and other document types, so the collaborative and “single version of the truth” characteristics of wikis are never realized.

Wikis Versus Document Management

To appreciate the limitations of documents as ways to share and grow knowledge, think about all the servers and disc drives filled with documents that never get shared – that quickly become out-of-date. To quote from another of Roy Youngman’s posts on Why Are Wiki’s in Corporate IT Rare:

The very notion of updating a document is perceived as painful and avoided at all costs by anyone with the expertise to actually make the changes… Every document was originally written to stand alone and few of them rely on one another to create clarity, so they contain many redundant passages; in fact, most of them contradict each other in one way or another and confuse the few people who do read them.”

Wikis mitigate the short-comings of document-orientation. Again, to quote Roy:

The nonlinear nature of a Wiki enables well-factored content, thereby minimizing redundancies and preventing contradictions that confuse people. It also allows people to contribute to whatever area of expertise each person happens to have so everyone is drawn in, not just the elite few. “

That means that Wikis enhance knowledge discovery and improvement, while documents tend to bury knowledge.

Have you experienced the power of a wiki?  Please take a moment to share your thoughts and experiences.

Graphic courtesy of The American

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