Why wiki doesn’t work – one person’s experience #

I’ve been introducing wikis into my workplace, especially for project teams – not in any forced way but more by making the technology available and starting to use it. Understandably the takeup is mixed but I was most surprised by the very strong aversion expressed by another senior technology manager with whom I have to produce complex joint strategy documents. Last week the opportunity came up to ask “why doesn’t wiki work for you?”; I was expecting answers that were about the difference between a web interface and a wordprocessor, or perhaps issues about the markup but what he told me had nothing to do with the technology and everything to do with mental models.

I’ve written before about how blog and wiki fit together for me and my mental model of document outlines and mindmaps as two dimensional projections of knowledge. In short I’ve found that for capturing and structuring “flow of thought” ideas in a way that can later be linked together the easy hypertext writing style of wikis works very well – I find myself thinking in terms of hyperlinks as I write.

By contrast my colleague finds the typical collection of wiki pages with dense hyperlinks very difficult to map into a mental structure of information. Under some gentle questioning he explained that for him information is always hierarchical – the technique he has found that works for him when organising knowledge is to think in “high level” concepts and then expand these down into details – the sort of model that fits very well with traditional outlining or a mindmap where you are not allowed to cross-link between branches.

What for some people is a strength of wiki – that any given page can appear in many different contexts depending on the relationship of hyperlinks – is for him a disadvantage of almost show-stopping proportions (certainly enough to make it too much effort to switch to the tool) because it is impossible to see a single clear hierarchy of information.

The obvious workaround that we will try for areas where we have to work jointly is for him to write “his stuff” in outline form and for me to construct index pages that present a view into “my stuff”; as we work on joint editing we can then pull together further pages that present different hierarchies.

I can sense a few vague ideas starting to bubble about how the tool itself could be changed but they aren’t making themselves articulable yet.

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Julian Elve
Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change

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