By Deane Barker on October 11, 2008

I have an extended flirtation with wikis. I like the open concept of them, but I find that only about 10% of wiki projects ever really take off due to one important fact: wikis are primarily a challenge of human, rather than technical engineering.

Technically, there are dozens of proven platforms on the market (try for scads of them), but the trick is getting the users to buy into the plan. Wikis constantly suffer from the “empty dance floor syndrome,” where no one wants to be the first one out there, and it’s tough to get anyone to shake their tail feather.

And this is where wikipatterns comes in — the Web site and the book.

What is a “wikipattern”? It’s a observed behavior or feature that lots of people have seen when trying to make wikis work. You have a “pattern” which is positive, and an “anti-pattern” which is negative. Example:

Champion [pattern]: A passionate, enthusiastic champion is essential to the success of wiki because s/he will be able to generate interest, give the appropriate amount of training for each person at the right time, monitor growth of the tool and fix problems that could derail adoption.

Bully [anti-pattern]: A bully is the opposite of a champion, and goes too far in pushing people to use the wiki. A good champion knows how to lead people in adopting the wiki, while a bully might get upset at someone for emailing rather than using the wiki.

(Note that patterns and anti-patterns aren’t always mirrored opposites, as in this example.)

These are fundamentally behavioral issues — how do you engineer the people around you into using the new technology?

There are also adoption patterns and anti-patterns, which are concerned less with the people and more with the implementation of project dynamics. Example:

Flying under the Radar [pattern]: […] hosting the wiki initially through unofficial channels, using a corporate credit card or other “black market” funding to pay for hosting, as well as using a set of community resources who are willing to play the role of Champion, Gardner, and other roles on their spare time.

But the Intranet [anti-pattern]: The “ButTheIntranet” pattern is one propogated by a webpageChampion to discourage wiki use, perhaps because they are familiar or vested in the “old” way of doing things on the world-wide-web.

Put together, these patterns and anti-patterns (there are four of five dozen of them), are a fantastic group of observed phenomena when implementing wikis. And, trust me, you’re going to need all the help you can get, because getting users on-board and contributing is often quite a trick. The wiki minefield is large.

Which brings us to the book “wikipatterns.” The book springboards quite a bit off the Web site, and it’s a good resource for two types of people.

  1. Those who barely know what a wiki is
  2. Those who are faced with a wiki implementation, and don’t know where to start

That said, the book doesn’t offer much in the way of technical advice, though the author’s companies own product is pimped quite a bit (Confluence, by Atlassian — I’ve looked at it, and it appears exceptional).

However, the technical side of the equation is not really what the book is about. Rather, it’s 150 pages of persuasion that wikis aren’t nearly as scary as you thought ,and that they’d probably work just fine for your project.

In-between the chapters are case studies from various people who have wikis running in product with some explanation of how they did it, and what specific patterns they saw in their own project.

I disgaree with a couple things in the book. First, I’m not a huge fan of wikitext, and I feel like WYSIWYG would give you more buy-in (but, given the author’s experience, who am I to argue?). Additionally, there’s a case study in their that irritated me a little when the author said, essentially, “A CMS can never be a wiki.” I don’t agree with this — I think there’s a very fine line between the two, but that’s another post entirely.

I got everything I expected out of the book. I’m better-equipped now to champion a wiki project, both from what I read in the book and for the introduction it gave me to the Web site, which is just as valuable.

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