“Who do I call to order more bubble wrap?”
“Which restaurant did we take the client to last time? Did she like it?”
“Who are our major competitors in Latin America?”
Everyone in your business knows something. We each have our own little silos of knowledge, which, when put together, make up our company's institutional memory.
But here's the thing. Often, incredibly valuable resources are locked away inside the skulls and hard drives of individual employees. And when an experienced employee retires or leaves a company, valuable knowledge is lost.
Wouldn't it be great if your business's institutional memory was easier to access, share, and preserve?
A company wiki might help.
A wiki is a collaboratively edited website that any user can add to or change. The most famous example, of course, is Wikipedia. The collaborative nature of wikis makes them especially well-suited to preserving and sharing a business's collective intelligence.
“You have the opportunity to build a corporate knowledge repository,” says Luis Suarez, a social software evangelist at IBM. He says wikis can act as a kind of outboard brain, giving businesses an “opportunity to retain knowledge should employees decide to leave or move on.”
Though many wikis are publicly accessible (think Wikipedia), it's entirely possible for a small business to set up private, internal wikis for employee use only. Think YourNameHere-pedia. You can run a private wiki on your own server, or choose to outsource it to an online wiki provider. WikiMatrix.org is a helpful tool to compare features and pricing.
“The key message,” Mr. Suarez says, “is to get started. To do it.”
First, Mr. Suarez suggests, figure out what you want your wiki to do. What is the specific business goal or aim? The goal can be broad – for example, providing a centralized knowledge repository – but should be clearly defined.
“Don't think of using a wiki just because you want to use a wiki,” he advises.
Once you have a business goal, approach your employees and ask the keenest, most tech-savvy of them to become early adopters. These early adopters should identify what goes into the wiki, and help shape it in the early days. They can also serve as vocal word-of-mouth advocates for the software.
Once your wiki is up and running, encourage employees to share information as openly as possible. Integrate your wiki into existing tools and workflows. If a colleague asks a question that could be answered in public on the wiki, rather than by e-mail, add a page and point them there.
“In the corporate world, you should only need to ask a question once,” Mr. Suarez says. “The second time should be on a wiki. That's what I keep telling people.”
Adopting a wiki in a small business context isn't without challenges.
If you've ever peeked behind the scenes at Wikipedia (just click “Edit” on any article), you'll know that wiki markup syntax can be cryptic. Depending on the wiki software, learning the necessary skills to add or edit an article can be daunting.
Tom Supra, who teaches e-commerce to small business and entrepreneurship students at George Brown College in Toronto, regularly demonstrates wiki software to his students, and characterizes the learning curve as “huge.”
Mr. Supra says some of his students are “technophiles, and so they pick up the technology very quickly. They've been doing it their whole lives, coding and making Web pages with HTML. But then you have a larger group of people in the classroom who didn't grow up with those skill sets.”
Perhaps the larger challenge for wiki adoption in small businesses is cultural. A wiki isn't just a new piece of software. Often, it represents a fundamental shift in the way businesses share and store knowledge and information. In some businesses, employees make themselves indispensible by hoarding knowledge and expertise. For those employees, the kind of transparency and collaboration a wiki encourages can be scary.
“The major inhibitor right now for wikis to succeed in the corporate world, for large businesses and small businesses, is the mentality of 'knowledge is power,'“ Mr. Suarez says. He says businesses need to switch to a model where shared knowledge prioritized over siloed knowledge.
In recent years, some of the buzz around business wikis has been supplanted by excitement about “the cloud.” Mr. Suarez says he's sometimes told that “wikis are dead” or “wikis are dying” at the hands of otherWweb-based collaboration tools.
He counters this by pointing to the popularity of wikis within his own organization. IBM currently runs 56,000 internal wikis, which generate over a million page views per day.
“For us, wikis are healthier than ever.”
Join The Globe’s Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues.
Our free weekly small-business newsletter is now available. Every Friday a team of editors selects the top picks from our blog posts, features, multimedia and columnists, and delivers them to your inbox. If you have registered for The Globe's website, you can sign up here. Click on the Small Business Briefing checkbox and hit 'save changes.' If you need to register for the site, click here.
Follow us on Twitter: