Do's and don'ts for managing IT projects with wikis

Wikis are a simple technology for managing information -- but used simplistically, they can do more harm than good

MediaWiki is a popular open source wiki and is used for WikiPedia

MediaWiki is a popular open source wiki and is used for WikiPedia

Why you should still use wikis despite their issues

Although wikis are not perfect, they do have powerful benefits. Foremost is the fact that documents are edited in a very visible way, which adds accountability, says Brim-DeForest: "Members of a team have to justify the changes because everybody can see it."

Wikis' inherent version control means you never have to worry about losing a document again or fret two weeks into a project that you no longer have a version written at the beginning of the month that you've now decided is better than what the group developed later.

By storing documents in the network, you never have to worry whether or not someone is in or out of the office to be able to access their documents.

The use of wikis can also save time by letting IT (or other groups) and its clients share documents for collaborative editing and quicker approval. This advantage is particularly obvious at teams of 30 people or more, Villareal notes, especially because no distribution lists are required and there aren't complex e-mail threads to navigate.

A technical advantage of wikis over other document management tools is that there are plenty of good open source versions available at little or no cost. Plus, such wikis are usually extensible, so you can customize them to your needs. Yet you don't need an expert administrator or extra hardware resources. "We have 10 to 12 wikis running on a virtual machine with 256MB RAM and a 10GB hard disk. It was installed in 2006 and is still working," says Globant's Villareal. By comparison, a SharePoint portal requires Microsoft SQL Database and a database administrator, he notes. (Globant has 900 employees, of which 600 are engineers and about 350 are active wiki users.)

What you should look for in a wiki

There are lots of wikis available, thanks to the open source basis that makes it easy for companies large and small to provide them. Whatever wiki fits your needs, Villareal recommends that you be sure it supports PHP-based add -ons, the most common type in use.

He also recommends that your wiki be able to use LDAP for authorization and authentication, rather than making you manage permissions inside the wiki itself.

But as is often the case with technology, how well you use the technology is at least as key as the technology itself. "The success of wikis in a project depends on how dedicated the participants are in using the wiki and checking in regularly," says Erik Knepfler, president of HaveAByte.com, a hosted application provider for small to medium-size businesses. He uses wikis all the time.

Knepfler says users have to check in every day or use a wiki with an RSS feed to alert you when changes are made. The wiki itself will not work miracles and make a failing project successful.

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