How to Collaborate on Documents Using a Wiki - dummies

How to Collaborate on Documents Using a Wiki

By David F. Carr

In some cases, uploading and downloading files and working with them offline is the only option. But in many social collaborations, the ideal would be to do everything — such as writing, revising, commenting, and editing — within a browser.

If colleagues intend to publish a document on a social platform anyway, it makes sense for them to create it in an environment that eliminates the need for uploading and downloading, while simplifying the process of linking to other online resources. This is particularly true when a document has multiple authors and editors.

Wiki software allows any authorized user to create and edit articles in a web-based editor that simplifies the process of linking between documents. Most people are familiar with Wikipedia, which is an encyclopedia produced by a worldwide team of volunteers, working under the supervision of editors employed by the Wikimedia Foundation. Many social collaboration platforms include wiki or wiki-like software although they may not use that terminology per se.

Most commercial wiki software now comes with a rich text editor — a web-based word processor for writing and formatting pages — although some of these still provide advanced users with the option to tweak the underlying HTML or wiki formatting and linking codes. The following figure shows the wiki editor in IBM Connections, which is used to create and edit shared community content. An “About Us” article is shown here in a rich text editor, but tabs across the top of the editor allow you to switch to an HTML source view or a preview of the final result.


To add a link, the user clicks a button and gets the option of choosing a resource on the social network to link to (such as another blog article or wiki entry) or an independent web address. The next figure shows the pop-up search screen in Jive that allows you to find and link to any other existing page or resource in the social collaboration environment.


When you edit a wiki article, the system retains all the previous revisions, making it possible to retrace exactly what was changed, when, and by whom. If a user inserts errors or deletes correct information, an editor with the right administrative privileges can revert the article to an earlier version (or lock it to restrict further edits). The figure below shows the version comparison utility from the IBM Connections wiki.


This is how wikis prevent their democratized vision of open content creation and editing from devolving into chaos. When users abuse their editing privileges by vandalizing a page (not uncommon with celebrity and political articles on Wikipedia), the editors can revert to an earlier version and restrict editing rights to a smaller group of trusted users.

On a corporate social network, the risk of this kind of mischief is minimal. For peace of mind, company leaders may be wise to restrict editing rights to official documents (think vacation or travel reimbursement policies posted on the collaboration network). However, employees are unlikely to make unauthorized changes, knowing that every edit will be tracked. Just as fears of employee misuse of the activity stream and discussion forums tend to be misplaced, the risk of intentional damage to wiki documents is small. Version tracking is more often a lifesaver in the case of unintentional errors, such as when an employee mistakenly deletes large blocks of important information, and you need to get it back.

For most routine work purposes, the ideal is to share editing rights broadly rather than narrowly and lock wiki documents against editing only in rare cases. The harm of denying users the access they need to fix an error or add information is almost always greater than the chance of something going wrong. Collaborative editing systems are often configured to notify the other authors whenever a document is updated, providing them with the opportunity to catch any errors that may have been introduced and correct them.

An alternate pattern — and one that can work even for documents locked against editing — is to provide a comment stream associated with the document and discuss changes or additions that may need to be made there. A designated editor can then implement the corrections, time permitting. Meanwhile, readers can scan the comments for additional information that may not be in the document itself.