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

By Ephraim Schwartz, InfoWorld |  Business, project management, wiki

Wikis are deceptively easy to use and install, so are nowadays found in all sorts of IT departments, especially as quick and simple project management organizers.

Although wikis are used mainly as project management tool, says Stewart Mader, principal at the GrowYourWiki consultancy, they can provide other advantages as well, such as in customer/client collaboration, documentation, and developing an online community.

However you use them -- as a lightweight project manager or as a document repository and knowledge management database -- Mader warns that you should know how to use them to their best effect.

Wikis can be a challenge for IT to manage

Dell subsidiary Dell MessageOne, which offers Internet-provisioned disaster recovery, e-mail archiving, business continuity, and emergency notification, uses wikis throughout the company for project management as well as for the dissemination of companywide information.

Dell has found that the use of wikis in areas other than project management can lead to IT playing "whack a mole," says Scott Griffin, a product manager. "Everyone is putting in data," says Griffin, and keeping it organized is at least a part-time if not a full-time IT job. "You end up in a mess," says Griffin. Furthermore, the information is often added to wikis but not deleted when no longer relevant or accurate or updated when changed, he notes.

Within IT, Griffin says wikis work well to keep things organized, because version control is their forte.

Wikis can be a challenge for users to learn

Although it's easy to set up wikis, it's not always so easy for users to take advantage of them. "Wiki platforms have a bit of a learning curve. You have to dig in to learn how to use it. It can turn people off," says Brady Brim-DeForest, treasurer of Data Portability, a nonprofit organization focused on making data portable among various systems.

At software development firm Globant, infrastructure manager Pablo Villareal says that most wikis aren't as polished as an intranet site managed by a collaboration tool such as Microsoft SharePoint. So for nontech workers, using wikis does require upfront training. "SharePoint is cute to use, and all users have at some point used Word or PowerPoint, so it is easier for them than a wiki," he says. Still, Villareal notes that despite wikis' rough user interfaces, it took the company's finance staff just a half hour of training to get started with them.

Wikis help share information, not manage projects

Although wikis aid in project management, they don't actually provide tools for project management, notes Mike Schultz, president of Topcoder, an independent application development company that uses wikis extensively for its distributed group of software engineers. He finds that wikis offer an excellent way to manage documents, but they aren't a good source control mechanism.

"A wiki is good for search. But if I am involved with you on a project, I don't care about search. I want to know what is assigned to me," says Mark Mader, CEO of SmartSheet.com, an on-demand provider of project collaboration software. If a member of a project group has 10 things to do, a wiki is not the tool that will tell that person the next step, he notes.

Globant's Villarreal says wikis are ideal if you work in a company with, say, 30 or 40 engineers and you want that knowledge to be fully documented and available to everyone. But wikis aren't appropriate if your engineers all want to have control over the knowledge, he adds.

And it's critical to think through the information organization that your wiki will use before you deploy it, Villareal advises: Everyone must be on the same page in developing the criteria used to organize information. But he says that step is often neglected in a wiki's deployment.

Wikis aren't secure

Even where IT uses wikis wisely, there is an underlying risk to having project information stored on wikis, says Data Portability's Brim-DeDorest: "It is often too easy to register and say that you are anyone. It typically has a very low barrier to entry." So wikis are not appropriate for editing sensitive documents.

Wikis don't share data well

Wikis' major technology weakness are their substandard ability to import or export data from and to external data sources. But Data Portability's Brim-DeForest says that gap will be fixed. "We are building a data portability stack, so an application developer can help to build documents to support, control, share, and remix data across all of their social networks rather than having it in silos that are difficult to export," he says.

Already, some wikis that have taken the first steps to support information interchange, Brim-DeForest notes, such as Confluence, which lets users import RSS feeds.

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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