I often hear from wiki champions inside organizations that "It's hard to get people to use wikis". There's something right about that comment, but also something wrong. I'll explain why.
Wikis can be used for many different activities, which fall into two broad categories:
- In-the-Flow wikis enable people do their day-to-day work in the wiki itself. These wikis are typically replacing email, virtual team rooms, and project management systems.
- Above-the-Flow wikis invite users to step out of the daily flow of work and reflect, codify, and share something about what they do. These wikis are typically replacing knowledge management systems (or creating knowledge management systems for the first time).
When wiki champions complain that it's hard to get people to use wikis, they're usually thinking of above-the-flow wikis. Modeled on Wikipedia, these wikis typically aspire to capture knowledge and insights that people collect in the course of their work. That's a hard thing to get people to do.
But the challenge of getting people to use above-the-flow wikis is an above-the-flow thing, not a wiki thing. Left to their own devices, people don't collaborate very much in above-the-flow ways. That was one of the great (if depressing) learnings of the Knowledge Management movement.
Above-the-flow wikis are used lightly (when at all) by large groups of people. Many are encouraged to participate, but participating is rarely an urgent or critical-path activity. Lurking is extremely common, and the bulk of content comes from <5% of users who are either personally invested in the success of the project or just love to publish. Wikipedia works because of the law of large numbers: A small percentage of a huge number is still a large number.
Adoption of in-the-flow wikis looks very different. It's not at all hard to get people to use in-the-flow wikis. They are used intensively by relatively small, well-defined groups of people: a project team, a business unit, etc. Once the group (or the group's manager) decides to use wikis as the primary collaboration tool, adoption is quite easy: People use it because that's the way to do their work. Lurkers are rare, since most people have a steady stream of things to contribute to the rest of the group.
In order to bring wikis into an organization, it helps to have both kinds of wikis. Both have value, and both bring different things to an organization. Given the low cost of launching wikis, champions should probably launch multiple wikis simultaneously. But they should not expect an above-the-flow wiki like an internal knowledge exchange to have the same level of usage as an in-the-flow wiki.