Lessons learned from enterprise wikis

In preparation for a speech that I am giving next month at the New Communications Forum conference  in Las Vegas about how Web 2.0 works for public relations, I came across what Razorfish is doing. The company, which now reaches across 16 offices and more than 1,000 staffers, is an interactive advertising and digital marketing agency that has grown through acquisitions since the early days before we even knew enough about Web 1.0.

Razorfish has developed their own enterprise wiki that combines things from a corporate blog, mailing lists, and other collaborative technologies. I had a chat with Ray Velez, who works in the Razorfish New York office. Ray gave me a brief tour and spoke about some of their lessons learned. The wiki is useful for spreading their knowledge across their wide network, and keeping people up-to-date on best practices, or even, previous work that they have done for their clients. For example, Ray mentioned a weather feed that one client wanted to incorporate into their Web site. Using the wiki, a staffer was able to track down three previous feed projects that had been developed in the past and present their client with this work in a matter of a few minutes. Without the wiki, it would have taken numerous phone calls and emails to track this information down within the corporation, or the staffer might have had to build it from scratch without the benefit of this knowledge.

You can get a taste for what they have developed by reading their case study published last year by Andrew McAfee, an Associate Professor at Harvard Business School

Based on my conversation with Ray, here are some of the lessons that they have learned with living with this project.

Lesson #1: Open source is great, but you can’t just slap the code in your organization without some modifications. Razorfish has one full-time intern and two part-time developers that maintain their code. They make use of MediaWiki (the open source code that powers Wikipedia) as well as WordPress’s blog software, among other things that they have developed themselves. Ray told me that the integration process is “constant” and taken them over 18 months to get to where they are today. While open source gave them a leg up on development, there is always more to be done.

We have grown up understanding that because the Web makes it really easy to fix little things, you end up making lots of small, incremental changes to your site. With open source projects, you want to do the same thing and make small tweaks, so they become living entities.

Lesson #2: You can only be so open — authentication matters.
Razorfish put in place some code that pulls information from their Active Directory servers. This enables single sign-on and also makes sure that their users could be held accountable and identifiable. Obviously, this is part of their corporate practices, but it wasn’t easy. The MediaWiki code didn’t have any simple mechanisms for AD integration, and even had a commented out a non-working section of code. Ray plans on giving back the fruits of their efforts at some point in the near future, in the grand spirit of the open source tradition.

Lesson #3: Security matters a lot. Razorfish’s wiki is behind its corporate firewall and just for employee-to-employee communications. In the olden days of the Web, say 1997, we would have called this an intranet. This might be at cross purposes with the idea of open collaboration, and there are suitable warnings placed around the site to remind users not to post highly confidential information that shouldn’t be shared across the corporation. Still, being open source doesn’t mean being lax about security.

Lesson #4: Search matters, too. Part of the custom code they wrote was to enable search across all wiki and blog content, to make it easier for employees to identify and find something of interest. Like any Web site, you can never spend too much time investing in a better search routine.

Razorfish has developed a very interesting application, to be sure. If you have a similar project you would like to tell me about, drop me a line.

6 thoughts on “Lessons learned from enterprise wikis

  1. This is a practical report on what it takes to make Mediawiki work in a sophistcated enterprise setting. No surprise. Andrew McAfee in my mind missed these key points, although he shows that Razorfish seems to have done an excellent job at implementation. I would expect that from a design agency. I thought your lessons highlight what choosing an open source wiki really means for an enterprise: it’s not an enterprise wiki until you make it one. Thanks for the basis for my blog today at wwww.radiowalker.com — Jeffrey

  2. There’s a couple of points I would like to add to this thread.

    One thing is that a technology architect/developer is needed regardless of the solutions, whether saas, commercial in-house or open source in-house. Someone will need to invest time to install, configure, connect to active directory, etc. When a new version comes along or when active directory stops connecting after an upgrade are all examples of when a technologist is needed. There are lots of scenarios that require technology support.
    The second piece which wasn’t clear in the discussion I had with David was that the intern and part-time technologists supporting the wiki were also helping add content and format the wiki. Sometimes I would give the intern a directory full of documents that I was getting tired of sending around and ask them to upload. A time consuming activity regardless of which tool is being used. The intern would also help support people with activities such as, where do I click the edit tab, how do I rollback content, etc.
    Lastly, a lot of the work invested was installing and configuring plug-ins. For example, we’ve added a plug-in that allows people to protect content. The nice part of working with a tool like mediawiki is that there are lots of plug-ins being added on a periodic basis.

  3. Pingback: Is Mediawiki an Enterprise Wiki? « Radiowalker: Tech Business Beat

  4. Pingback: The Workplace Blog » Blog Archive » More Avenue A | Razorfish wiki talk

  5. Wow this was potentially one of the most intelligent blurbs I’ve had the chance to come across on the topic so far. I do not have any idea where you gather up all of your information but keep it coming! I am gunna send some people your way to read this. Fantastic, totally awesome. I’m have just started getting into crafting articles myself, nothing remotely close to your writing skills (ha!)

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