15 May 2006

Wiki as a KM and PM tool

I posted a comment to Denham Grey's blog about capturing corporate knowledge, from which two people have asked me to say more. Two people asking for that in my book qualifies for a blog post, so here goes;

First, the two acronyms; KM (Knowledge Management) is a cauldron which contains many things (processes, methods, systems, software, etc) that tries to manage (meaning; collecting, storing, finding, repurposing and changing) "knowledge". PM (Project Management) is that crazy category of "things we do to do things on time and within budget."

Right then, a Wiki is basically a really simplified web-based page-driven "anyone can make edits to a page" system, but instead of wasting my time rewriting what's been said before, here's the worlds best Wiki explaining itself. I've been doing Wiki's since 1997 (two years after they were 'invented', so I've been doing them for quite a while now, seeing them grow and flourish).

Knowledge What?

First of all, let me just state that I don't belive in Knowledge Management. I do have some hope in Knowledge Representation Management at least, but the difference between the two is the realisation that "knowledge" is a human thing that computers don't have, don't handle right now, not in the next few years, possibly not until Quantum Computing and serious AI systems taking off, possibly long after I've passed away, and that the only thing they can do and do well, is representation of little bits of information. The current thinking that we're on to that golden path of "Knowledge" in computers is what brought us all that ontology noise and semantic web porn, but I'll leave that rant for another days.

The goal of KM is a worthwile thing though, and we use a variety of systems, methods, tricks, software and sanity to trick ourselves into believing we've got a good grasp on the concept of "we're doing KM." For most people it involves some kind of intranet in the shape of a Content Management System, possibly with a few KM features bolted on, and perhaps some records management and customer relation management system. So, we can list a few good acronyms here; CMS, CRM, KMS, RMS. You can google them if you like; hours of fun reading, if you're a maschocist.

In short, most of these systems are huge databases with an underlying data-model that tries to do what they state on their respective tin. A popular game with enterprise management is to buy one system for each component of your enterprise, so one for taxes, one for the website, one for the intranet, one for customer relations, one for finance, one for leave and pay, another for filling in your hours, one for the helpdesk, one for systems support, one for deployment and / or configuration, one for holding your hand, another for wiping your bottom, etc, and so forth.

So the first obvious problem with all this is of course that there are many of them! And all sporting their own unique way of doing things! With their own unique user-interface! Most of them using some proprietary user-management module which results with you having to have about 5 usernames and passwords just to get you through a normal week.

One can argue that all these systems combined surely holds a bit of the corporate knowledge, and quite pssobily if you merged all those data-models and interfaces and methods and ways of reporting, we might have a pretty good Knowledge Representation System ... provided, of course, that you know all those data-models by heart, the user-interface was far smarter than you, and everybody in the world was working towards making you a happy human being in liue with the universe.

I've seen some pretty complex enterprise setups in my life, and I'll swear that no one - no one! - has ever come close to capture knowledge (in representation-form or otherwise) with this one-system-to-every-part nonsense. The proof is in the pudding, and I've yet to find a pudding that tastes wonderful, is good in shape and form, looks pleasing and leaves me feeling satisfied after use.

What's a document?

It's a good question; what's a document? A word document? A meeting invitation in Outlook? A mail? A picture? A diagram? A todo list? A meeting minutes? A draft of a specification? A combination of many things? An atomic unit?

Very often people's notion of what a "document" is is quite varied; do you mean a document on a company, by the company, for the company, is it about fish, a todo list for fishermen, a complaint on our smell of fish, a fishy document ... what is it? In my book it seems like a worthwhile thing not to do is chasing the "document" paradigm, because "document" often is represented by some finished work, a piece we can fit into our KM machinery. (In rare circumstance we refer to draft documents, which really are drafts, before we treat them again as a produced document)

Instead, let's work with something that has proven itself to work quite well; a web page. It has proven itself over the last decade to be a very good spot for information, especially for changing information. Web pages change all the time.

The Wiki way

The Wiki is a changing web page about something, anything. So instead of creating a document about "Fisheries" you make a Wiki page about "Fisheries". Instead of using a special tool (like a word processor), you use the browser directly. Instead of saving it locally first through drafts (my_doc_v1.doc, my_doc_v2.doc), share it over email (my_doc_v1.doc, my_doc_v2.doc, my_doc_v3.doc ... uh, who's making changes to what document?!), get it back and do more edits (my_doc_v5.doc, my_doc_v6.doc, oops! my_doc_v5.5.doc, my_doc_v7.doc), upload it through the intranet thingy (my_doc_v2.html, using the most abysmal HTML known to man) ... instead of all that, you simply go to the page, click an edit button, make some changes, click the save button, and you're done. Everybody can edit and save all pages; no need to share it around as it is naturally shareable.

Ok, so let's assume we all know the simplicity of this model. What's stopping us from dealing with almost all of those KM tools in a Wiki way? What stops you from setting up a page about yourself with a picture of you, your contact details, where you fit in the organisation, what you do, how you do it, what your hobbies are and what other extraordinary skills you've got? What stops you from setting up a page about a project? With links to documentation of various kind? What stops you setting up a page with your hours in them?

The answer to a lot of those questions are mostly "you can't mine and reuse the data for other purposes", again referring us back to the KM machinery. But that's just where things are about to change, and in big ways. Do you really need everything to be in a highly-structure database. I mean, seriously, I know you want to use that data, mine it, sort it and report on it, but do we really do it? And if we really do it, does it matter if the data comes from a database of fields or a database of pages?

Most good Wiki engines support different ways of taking your input and converting it into something more useful for computer processing, either through crude file export or more sophisticated Web Services API's. This latter is what I've done with huge success.

Web Services

A page in a Wiki system is usually stored internally in a loosly structured way, often in something known as Wiki markup; it consists of plain vanilla text that is given some special meaning, so that "it was *the dog* who ate it" is converted to "it was the dog who ate it" when displayed.

Here's a better example, a page called "DimwitProject_HoursWeek52_AlexJ" ;

Dimwit Project
Application design : 20h
Usability study : 9h
XML schema work : 3h

It isn't hard to get or write a little parser (a lot of Wiki's have lots of these already out of the box) that can convert the above to ;

Dimwit Project

The road from using the Wiki with another part of the KM machinery is a lot closer as these systems more and more utilise web services; in fact, you can use the Wiki as the interface to almost all of it.

At work these days we're using an enterprise Wiki system called Confluence that has both SOAP and XML-RPC web services available, and I've created parsers and scripts that basically allows me to use Confluence as a Wiki interface into a number of services. What happens then?

Well, first of all you get one point of origin for most of your normal processes, the very pipe-dream that portal systems dream of, only in portals you're at the whim of developers creating user-interfaces and systems in perticular ways for it to really work. In the Wiki, you're already familiar with the interface, and, perhaps more importantly, it is within the page-paradigm, which is easy to bookmark, easy to reference, easy to modify, easy to remember, and easy to search. And if there's some things portal systems suck at, it is pretty much all those things listed. And the Wiki has a distinct Google advantage; free-text parsing and linking that can convey importance much better than most metadata can! (I know; bold statement, solely based on the tremendous success Google has shown us in this area)

Second, because of the simplicity of adding and editing data, the freshness of the information becomes higher. If you only allow people to use the Wiki for most things, even more so will the Wiki be fresh in content. Instead of John using Word to write down the minutes of a meeting, make him do it straight in the Wiki. Instead of letting Doreen write a draft letter to the fish caterer in Word, let her do it in the Wiki. Instead of adding a meeting to Sonjas schedule in Outlook (where perhaps a few know how to properly use that information), just put it on her Wiki page.

Third, and this bit is a bit philosophical and possibly psychological, but an open space for all to work in helps people a) understand what others are doing and what they're working on, b) helps generate an atmosphere of less secrecy, and c) promotes a less rigid structure for live information (there is no longer just draft and published documents; they are all living, changing all the time).

Here's what I do

First of all, I created a really simple URL for people to go to, such as wiki.work.com or work.com/wiki. (I'd recomend that you create a few shortcuts as well, so that wiki.work.com/project/MyProject is the same as wiki.work.com/projectMyProject, as this gives the impression of structured data)

For project management, every project has a starting Wiki page. On it, I foremost write a) what the project is about and for (divided into 1. the problem and 2. the solution), b) where we're up to, and c) where you can find some current representation of what we're doing (an application in test, a document, a draft design guide, whatever we can prove our exsistance through). Then I write who's involved in the project, stakeholders, developers, watchers, and all these have their own pages which are Wiki pgaes themselves. Finally I have a separate documentation page with links to all our various documentation, all Wiki pages.

If we have a Word document, it will immediatly be Wikified and deleted from the offenders PC. This is important; delete all Word (or other proprietary format) as soon as you possibly can; if the Wiki is to work for us, we must work with it. This is probably the hardest transition for most people at first, but after a short while they'll never look back. :)

Once a day I update the front page with status information. I usually do it at a specific time everyday, like 1pm. For every important information bit I might add a comment of progress and possible resolution. Once in a while I create a GANTT chart (because some people can't live without them) which I'll attach to the Wiki page and link to. If I can't give people a good overview of where we're up to on that front page, I doubt any other PM software would do a better job.

All documentation is a separate page which you'll link through to the documentation page. It doesn't matter if this documentation page gets long; group the links reasonably well and label the links, and people will have no problem finding them. If I need to write a report, I create a page that's a sub-page of the project reports page. You can almost never have enough pages, and you certainly will never run out of them.

Some Wiki's support structured pages (and our Confluence does just that) where you can create sub-pages of a page where that structure can automatically be called upon in terms of navigation, display and organisation. Use this wisely. Some Wikis also support things like tags, blogging, WYSIWYG editors, sub-Wiki's etc, and all this will help you out in creating a good intranet.

Some pages are worth republishing, and this is done by taking the page name and push it through a simple PHP script I've got that fetches the page content through web services and displays them on our various other webs. Over time this will probably run the whole website, but currently there's an assorted pages done this way, and I'me working on making all news / newsletters done this way, repurposing bits of news. (Our Confluence supports various blogging paradigms, and creating and reusing newsfeeds from pages/ Wiki blogs is easy)

Some pages are reports by themselves, sporting simple Wiki macros that take information from various places, and creates a summary page (which is the report itself). If your Wiki markup is well-structured, creating quite sophisticated reports is easy. For example, I can create an automatic page that is a monthly and / or yearly summary of all my hours spent, using the Wiki markup I described earlier.

Hmm, I do do a lot more, and I might update this post as I'm doing them.


I suppose there are a lot of straw-men in this post, ungrounded facts and dubious claims, so I suggest not to take my word for it but simply try it out yourself. Start simple; install some Wiki engine, start documenting your own projects, and invite a select few to participate. See what happens. There are a number of things to be said about whether an organisation is 'ripe' for a Wiki approach or not. I personally have witnessed conservative technologically-challenged folks use Wikis with ease and pleasure, but I'm sure there are counter-stories to be told as well.

Often people think of Wiki's as another tool for their toolbox, but in my experience Wiki's tend to work best when you remove some of those other tools; it seems to be worth the re-training and initial frustration and scare. Just because everybody uses Office doesn't mean it is the best tool for the job, nor does it mean you should even use the darn thing; we have a tendency to use Office for all the wrong things as well, just because it is there. Time to rethink.

Finally; spreadsheets. Yeah. Wiki's can't compete with them. Sorry. :) There are however smart ways to link into the information within them (again, think web services) and reuse that information for all your Wiki pleasures.



At Thursday, May 18, 2006 2:29:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice work. Good to hear a more expansive view of what a wiki might do. You've raised possibilities that I have not considered before.

I'd like to know more about the technical aspects of the parsing and web services. Although I'm probably not technical enough to understand.

Thank you.


At Friday, May 19, 2006 10:56:00 AM, Blogger  said...

What would you like to know? I'm doing some web services and SOA presentations and meetings of late, so I feel a summary posting coming on soon.

As for parsing, it can be tricky or easy. In Confluence I can stipulate a template for the newly created page (a template here basically means a given set of Wiki notation to edit) which makes working out the semantics a bit easier.

There are mainly two ways to go about it, though; parse the Wiki notation, or parse the HTML coming from it (which means GreaseMonkey if you're brave, even micro formats if the parser is kind, etc)

Let me know what you're after. :)

At Tuesday, May 23, 2006 9:07:00 PM, Blogger  said...

Hi Alexander,

Very interesting proposal. I always like solutions that are simple, easy to implement and get started, scalable, easy to change, etc... even if you have to renounce more sophisticated aspects, such as security, e-mail integration, etc...


At Tuesday, May 23, 2006 9:52:00 PM, Blogger  said...

Hi Lucas; I think I need to write a post soon about security issues within a SOA, because people generally over-emphasizes it! I have similar problems with security model within Object-Oriented programming; security measures that for the most part are creating complexities, becoming show-stoppers in a smaller universe. I reckon that most of the time - as long as you know what you're doing - there shouldn't be a need for creating complex security and permission systems on top of your development-stack. I can think of very few places outside the network itself (even up to the firewall itself) that security is something that needs to be primary focus.

The whole idea with SOA though, is the smaller bits - looser coupling of services, if you like - and in doing so, designing in security or whatever else you feel you need, as long as you follow the notion of small bits, it's ok. And generally quite easy, too.

At Saturday, August 19, 2006 7:30:00 PM, Anonymous Ulrich said...

Dear Alexander,
great and very helpful post. I started to make similar experience with my ILM project communications platform.
In my opinion project communication and collaboration should not be restricted to Wiki technology but use other application modules as well. I described my approach in my blog.

Anyway I could learn a lot from you how to organize and publish things. Thanks

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