Magazine article Information Today

Collaboration: What Wikipedia Knows That Businesses Don't

Magazine article Information Today

Collaboration: What Wikipedia Knows That Businesses Don't

Article excerpt

One of the delicious surprises in the short history of the web has been the emergence of the most successful collaborative writing project in history: a nonprofit, worldwide effort that has produced millions of useful free articles in hundreds of languages. Of course, this project is Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia experience is in contrast to that of many businesses where collaborative writing is almost synonymous with "pain" and practically the definition of "necessary evil." At Wikipedia, collaboration is not painful; people do it for free.

For corporations, creating critical documents in a wiki often is not feasible due to limitations in wiki technology that include poor support for printing and few security options. However, wiki technology is not the only thing that Wikipedia is doing right. Although nobody can explain exactly why Wikipedia works, its policies and processes are well-understood and highlight some best practices that have yet to become common practices in the corporate world.

Regular Structure and Small Chunks

Wikipedia is easy enough for readers to navigate and easy for writers to elaborate on, in part because the entire site follows a set of structural rules. These structural rules define how the site is divided into articles and define the conventions for disambiguation pages, categories, and templates. Behind the scenes, volunteers put a great deal of thought and day-to-day work into establishing and communicating this model and into actually writing articles.

The highly structured nature of Wikipedia lends itself well to "chunking." The fact that thousands of users can contribute to Wikipedia simultaneously depends on it being divided into fairly short articles, each further divided into sections. Each article and each section can be edited independently of all others. The practice of breaking up a document into chunks prevents the file-lock conflicts that would otherwise arise when several people try to edit a document at the same time.

Businesses often work under the assumption that one long document equals one massive file. A common source of frustration in collaborative writing projects is not being able to work on a document because someone else "has it." At Wikipedia, an editor working on one article would never have a file-lock conflict with someone who is working on a different article, and editors can even work on different sections of an article at the same time.

In business environments, a good alternative to wikis is XML. XML technology enables writers to create small pieces of content and assemble them into much longer ones. Unlike HTML files or traditional word processor files, XML files can be cleanly connected into a sequence with a single table of contents, automatic numbering of headings and figures, and an index.

Separation of Content From Formatting

Wikipedia makes millions of articles look consistent, a feat that many organizations would struggle to achieve with two articles. Following the principle of "separation of content from formatting," writers say at an abstract level what the different parts of a document are, and the actual formatting is defined in a separate stylesheet file.

For instance, a writer can identify that a particular phrase is a Level-1 heading, and the system will automatically format it the same way as all other Level-1 headings. …

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