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Working smarter with wikis

originally published in Lawyers Weekly

“Potential hotbeds of anarchy.” That’s how Stewart Mader initially described certain public wikis.

As an author, consultant and founder of Grow Your Wiki, Mader helps businesses implement this still-fresh Web 2.0 technology, but he admits that negative publicity surrounding select public wikis can create credibility problems for the rest.

Yet there’s another side to wikis, both public and private, that negative headlines often overshadow. It’s that side that captures the imagination of lawyers looking to work smarter.

For instance, the Canadian Internet Policy & Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC) at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law wanted to learn how many legitimate applications use BitTorrent to distribute content. Media pirates commonly use BitTorrent to distribute ill-gotten digital wares, so certain parties tar BitTorrent with the same piracy brush.

“That’s a completely unfair characterization of the tool,” said David Fewer, Legal Counsel for CIPPIC. “It’s like calling photocopiers piracy machines.”

To augment its knowledge of actual BitTorrent traffic, CIPPIC set up a public wiki and asked its media contacts to publicize it. “All sorts of people across the net joined the wiki and added their two cents,” Fewer said. “It was a wise move because there were way more legitimate uses of BitTorrent than we knew of.”

In simple terms, a wiki is an editable website suitable for collaborative information gathering. It takes its name from the Hawaiian word wiki-wiki, meaning “fast.” But the ease with which anonymous and pseudonymous contributors can add content means many public wikis, including the mighty Wikipedia, simply don’t command what Fewer calls adequate “reputational muster.”

Wikis internal to law firms are another matter entirely. Consider Heather Colman’s case. Soon after she arrived at Hicks Morley Hamilton Stewart Storie LLP as a Knowledge Management Specialist, Colman audited the firm’s intranet.

She found lawyers sending email to find information that other lawyers had stored in their own folders on network drives. Only the very few who had the complex and expensive Adobe Dreamweaver software installed on their computers could publish to the Intranet. Updates were rare.

So Colman tried free wikis online, then within Hicks Morley itself. Eventually, Hicks Morley replaced its intranet with ThoughtFarmer, an enterprise wiki system from Vancouver’s OpenRoad Communications Inc.

Simplicity was one of Colman’s major selection criteria. “There’s no point in having all these bells and whistles and wonderful features that lawyers just aren’t going to use,” she said.

Accessibility was another. Wikis are designed to be used in web browsers. Software available via a web browser, or Software as a Service (SaaS) in technical parlance, resides on a server located either inside or outside a firm. Given privacy concerns, Hicks Morley chose to keep the wiki within the firm’s firewall.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) lets lawyers receive notifications when wikis that interest them are modified, while change tracking and the ability to comment on an entry without changing it should prove familiar to people who use similar features in desktop-based word processors.

These and other attributes of wikis ultimately lower barriers for those who would contribute to the firm’s organizational knowledge base, which in turn enables increased use and reuse of knowledge, easier collaboration and other advantages, even for people who merely use the information but do not contribute.

When bringing wikis into a firm, Mader cautions against simply installing a system and publicising it via the dreaded “email from above.” Mader instead advises firms to pilot wikis and have internal champions spread buzz via word-of-mouth.

According to Mader, success comes easiest when neophytes use wikis for meeting agendas, minutes, action items and project management.

“People don’t feel nearly as protective about these things as they do their own project document or proposal,” he said. “It lets them build their comfort level with the wiki and see that it’s a harmless process.”

Mader assumes that meeting participants take ownership of agenda and minute items that interest them. This assumption, though, might not hold for all wikis. CIPPIC, for instance, coordinates certain wiki efforts. “I’ll bring the watermelon, you bring the peanut butter, that kind of thing,” Fewer said.

For some, wikis might not be the right tools. While writing their book “The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together,” authors Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell, based in Missouri and Texas respectively, felt that a wiki would be overkill while they were writing the book. They opted for Google Docs instead.

Extranets, where discrete parts of a firm’s intranet become externally available via secure connection, may extend a wiki’s benefits to clients. As well as cutting down on email and the reconciling of changed documents, clients may feel empowered to take greater control of their matters, reduce meeting time and, perhaps, feel increased loyalty to the firm.

“We are starting to speak with clients who are interested in wikis,” Colman said.

For a PDF of the published article, click here.