...Software programmers have sought for decades to design products that help people collaborate in the virtual world as easily as they do in the real world. E-mail is by far the most successful result, but it is linear and best suited for back-and-forth communications involving two people or a small group. On the other end of the spectrum, groupware programs like the Lotus Notes software sold by I.B.M. are elaborate attempts to mimic work environments, with multiple levels of authorization, defined work flows and lots of rules — just like a corporation.
The most distinctive characteristic of a wiki is that anyone in the group (or for public wiki sites on the Internet, anyone who visits) can edit, modify or even delete material on the pages. Such a free-form collaborative process can be messy and chaotic, and it requires a commitment to the group that may not sit well with some egos. But over time, wiki advocates say, a group voice or consensus emerges into what some enthusiasts call "emergent intelligence."
The creative anarchy of the wiki is the philosophical inverse of conventional corporate groupware software. Groupware's highly structured rules and processes do not always reflect the way people really work. Employees often ignore costly corporate-sanctioned software and revert to informal social networks — whether simply e-mail or impromptu water-cooler discussions.
Ward Cunningham, who created the first wiki in 1995 and is the author of "The Wiki Way," a manifesto and how-to manual published by Addison-Wesley, says a wiki is a medium for connecting an electronic community and allows "idea keeping." A wiki presents its members with a blank slate, and their entries determine its structure and organization.
As with any community, each wiki develops its own social systems and rules to guide behavior. But there is basic wiki etiquette. For example, wiki-squatting (using a few pages of a wiki for your own personal use) and wiki spam (pushing a product or service on a wiki page) are frowned upon, and offending pages are likely to be deleted by group members. In addition, a good wiki citizen will always give credit and link to material that someone else has already contributed.
Given that wikis are easy to use, inexpensive and can be set up without a company's information technology department, it is no surprise that the software is making its way into business organizations through the back door — much as instant messaging and other stealth innovations have done. While wikis can be helpful for project managers and employees in charge of small teams, corporate managers who favor greater control are more likely to be wary.
That is why various entrepreneurs are beginning to tailor wiki software to corporate use. SocialText, a San Francisco start-up, for example, has wiki software with Web log and chat capabilities. It has also added security features and programmed the whole package to work with standard office and e-mail software.
The SocialText software, which starts at a price of $995 a year for five users, is being used in about 20 companies, typically small businesses or departments within larger ones, according to Ross Mayfield, SocialText's chief executive.
One SocialText customer is Composite Tech, a $10-million-a-year maker of bicycle tires sold under the Zipp brand. Since early April, Composite Tech, based in Indianapolis, has been using the SocialText wiki for a variety of tasks. Employees contribute informal notes on what the competition is doing, for example, while product development engineers keep track of production schedules as well as advances in materials and other innovations that they might use in future models. Notes from meetings are kept in a wiki, and sales and customer service employees can consult the pages to check on production status and plans.
Denham Grey, the production manager at Composite Tech, says the wiki has become a central repository for information that formerly was shared only in an ad hoc way through e-mail or face-to-face encounters. The wiki, he says, is making it possible to build an "informal corporate memory."
Another SocialText user is Global Business Network, a consulting company in Emoryville, Calif., that employs the software to create comprehensive records of client meetings. Chris Coldewey, a consulting associate at Global Business, says he likes the fact that the wiki can be used by anyone. "The bar to participating is very low," he said. "You don't have to have any skills other than typing."...
"You just have to do enough things well enough and cheaply enough," says Clay Shirky, a software guru who is an adjunct professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. "It's the attack-from-below strategy."