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John Tropia recently explained how wikis (along with blogs and social networks) enable better knowledge sharing. To set up the comparison, here’s how he described the struggle to share tacit knowledge using a traditional document management system:

“Let’s not even talk about sharing personal information and thoughts (supposed tacit knowledge) in an enterprise document management system (EDMS). Firstly you have to write a word document or text document, then add metadata when you add it to the EDMS, but where are you adding it, which folder, which section, and who knows it will be there (an EDMS isn’t a place like a CoP, it’s a filing cabinet) is anyone notified or do they subscribe to this folder.”

The “CoP” he’s talking about is a Community of Practice (apologies if you already know this – it’s a term I heard all the time in higher ed but haven’t heard much outside, thus the clarification), and community of practice is a great way to think about a wiki. The people that use the wiki are the “community,” and the definition of “practice” can include both the projects, tasks, etc. housed on the wiki, and the emergent patterns of wiki use.
Speaking of patterns, that’s where the wiki differs from the document management system.
Because of its compex structure, the EDMS tends to compartmentalize content instead of letting relationships emerge, so it becomes a veritable black hole.
The wiki does a much better job because it allows emergent organization of content.
People don’t have to decide which folder or section to put it in, they can tag it so it appears alongside other similar content. Also in a wiki, the fact that you put content directly on a page instead of uploading a file means it requires less effort for someone else to find it.
If it’s on a page, I can:

  1. see it immediately, and
  2. add to or edit it immediately.

The fact that I can see it immediately means I’m less likely to get distracted by the mechanics associated with downloading, opening, etc., so I’m more likely to remember something I might want to add. Then, the fact that I can edit it so easily means I’m more likely to make my contribution.
That’s the real power of the wiki.

Check out the newly published Wikipatterns book – a how-to guide for growing wiki use in organizations with practical advice from a wiki expert.

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