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The Bright Future of Wiki Collaboration inside an Organization

It’s only a few days until the JIRA and Confluence Nordic Conference takes place at Finlandia Hall, and so it seems like a perfect time to talk a little about Confluence. The latest version (Confluence 4.3) was released last month and brought with it a number of new features that take us one step closer to an exciting future – the future of intuitively easy and simply efficient online collaboration. In this light we can now, for a moment, lose some of the tech-talk and take a bit different point of view to this topic: that of organization, business and people. After all, Confluence is a great platform for building even company-wide collaboration in the form of easy communication channels, re-usable knowledge bases or comprehensive intranet portals, all of which present far more strategic and multi-faceted aspects than just technological trivia.

We here at Ambientia work within a very open and low-hierarchical expert organization and use tools like Confluence as a starting point and a nerve center for everything we do. Being able to openly discuss issues, easily share information and have access to all (even what seems irrelevant) content is vital for our processes, and that’s why it’s sometimes easy to forget that many organizations are still very skeptical towards adopting these ideas or do not feel quite ready for such a culture yet. I have heard people say things like “openness would not work in our company”, “we can’t let people say and do whatever they want” or “this is still a business, there’s no work-related need to like or comment everything”. When talking about Confluence, which as a wiki-based tool pretty much has all these ideas and functions built-in, I think for successful deployments it is crucial to also discuss the non-technological aspects of Confluence implementations and what it means for an organization.

The thing is that I believe we are still in a transitional phase in what comes to social media and online collaboration. We are only starting to realize the benefits and possible applications for such a means of communication. After all, wiki-type of platforms can reduce the need for document management, @mentions can reduce the email overload, and different tagging systems (including, yes, also “liking”!) can improve content structuring by replacing static taxonomies with adaptive folksonomies. For some people, social collaboration tools and features still represent irrelevant nonsense, and being unfamiliar with them may also make them seem difficult to use. However, I believe these attitudes reflect a poor integration of the features with actual work rather than failure of the features themselves. Sooner or later, as the amount of information rapidly increases, they will most likely reach a tipping point after which they, in fact, become the easiest and quickest way for an individual to manage the daily information flow. In some cases and applications it has already happened as these functions are in use in their own right. Luckily, all of these three have been, to some extent, integrated into Confluence in the form of labels and open content creation, and as mentions and notifications introduced in version 4.3.

This transition, however, does not only apply to technology and people getting familiar with the new features and ways of working. As we operate in business context, new practices and processes must also be integrated with the organization. If the new ways of working reflect values that are different than the ones that characterize the organization, it is likely that new habits will not stick. Introducing totally new forms of collaboration and communication is a significant organizational change – not just another technology deployment – and so it should also be managed as such. Sure, eventually, end users have to realize the benefits and adopt the new tools by themselves, but for long-term success it is vital to manage the change in a larger context (and integrate the tools into workflows) by first adopting a new mindset and reinforcing values that create a “wiki-friendly” environment inside the organization. I recently read an excellent book by Rod Collins (Leadership in a wiki world, 2010), that digs into this topic and explains the required mindset change in an eye-opening way.

On Thursday, At the JIRA and Confluence Nordic Conference 2012 we can see what companies are doing with their wikis now, as the main emphasis of the conference will be on customer cases. Besides learning about the technological choices made in each project and the opportunities offered by Confluence in different kinds of companies, it will be very interesting to hear something about their deployments, user feedback and the strategic goals and changes that were pursued and achieved with Confluence, the company wiki.

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