Late last fall, Kenneth Brooks, VP Global Production and Manufacturing Service at Thomson Learning, decided to give his staff some homework. For a company whose target audience is under the age of 25, the majority of the staff’s tech knowledge was a little out of date. Everyone could throw around the term wiki (you know, that online encyclopedia), and tell you that their 13-year-old was on MySpace (some time waster that endangers child safety?), but actual computer use beyond email? Not a chance.
Brooks said he stumbled onto the homework idea by chance: “Really I just knew that we needed to be more grounded in technology.” Brooks – someone who has difficulty dealing with new technology without the experience of actually using it – told PT, “I thought that the homework would force people to engage.”
As it turned out, Asheesh Birla, one of the Production Tech Directors in the department had recently developed a wiki to manage communication between geographically dispersed Thomson employees (see chart for more info). “We wanted a way for us to collaborate,” Birla said. “We wanted to develop a platform conducive to open environment collaboration in order to get managers at the tail end participating.” So, he took an old laptop, downloaded free open source wiki software from www.twiki.org, and got people to log on.
Brooks asked that the online conversation could be expanded to include his senior management and then Brooks posted the following mission statement: “Enabling content to do anything you can imagine.” He followed this with a presentation of what he hoped to accomplish with the new communication tool, along with staff assignments. Then he encouraged them to go take a look.
The assignments resembled an average day in the life of an internet junkie – or bored teenager. Go to MySpace, open an account, and look at tagging; Go to Technorati and subscribe to a blog feed, then use Google reader to download and read it; Go to iTunes and download a podcast; Go to Moby Pocket and download an ebook; Text someone else in the office using your Blackberry. Brooks laughed. “I asked them to do things like Google ‘pizza Mason Ohio’ and see what came up. They had no idea. It was really remarkable.”
The biggest part of the assignment, however, was for every employee to learn how to navigate the wiki and use it as a platform to communicate with colleagues. Just to retrieve their homework assignments employees had to create an account and log on to the wiki, and then search around until they found what they needed.
In the beginning, Brooks said, it was painfully obvious that it was going to take older employees a long time to complete the homework. “Some took to it much more rapidly than others,” he said, describing how numerous threads sprung up to help staff members teach each other about the technology. “When new topics would come up, they would immediately turn to the wiki,” Brooks said. “Now, it’s pretty much taken root. It’s the place where we post and discuss all of our standard forms, white papers, meeting minutes, ideas, etc. It’s become the center for communication.”
With the current transition and sale of Thomson Learning, the wiki is shaping up to become not only the production department’s center of communication, but the company’s center of communication as well.
Both Brooks and Birla agree that the technology took hold much faster than anyone anticipated – only about a month and a half. “When Ken started using it, it grew exponentially,” Birla said. “We outgrew the one server that we originally used, and are now using one in Mason Ohio that supports 600-700 users.”
Now, employees on the editorial side are using Google spreadsheets to build indexes, cross references, bibliographies, and Google docs to collaborate (http://docs.google.com/). Thomson Gale – Thomson’s reference group – got into the conversation by establishing a controlled access wiki with authors. There are even certain parts of the site that are shared not only with Thomson employees, but with vendors as well.
When setting it up, Birla and Brooks decided not to put any restraints on the format. “It got pretty disorganized pretty quickly,” Brooks said. “But then everyone’s editorial inclinations led them to re-organize the site.” For companies looking to start their own wiki, Brooks advised against setting up a structure ahead of time because it makes it even more daunting for new users to adapt to the technology. Instead, he advocates organic growth. “We wanted the structure to evolve, and we wanted people to take care of it,” he said.
Birla said that one of the most interesting results is that they’ve gotten the junior employees to participate in the conversation since anyone can contribute to the online conversation and update the wiki.
Another upside is that the technology has dramatically cut down on the amount of time it takes to circulate, edit and collaborate on documents. “Before, you’d be using Word,” Birla said. “You’d have to complete everything, make sure your document is perfect, and then send it to the second person. Then they’d go through everything, track changes, and send it to the third person and so on, it would take 2-3 weeks. Now, with the wiki, someone posts, and immediately everyone in the group can respond and manipulate one document. We can get an RFP out in 2-3 days now.”
The open nature of the wiki also nudges employees to complete tasks in a timely manner. Before meetings, everyone attending is required to post their notes, presentations, etc. to the site. If they don’t, their name appears in red at the top of a list. “No one wants that,” Birla said.
Most important, the assignments enlightened the whole conversation that the company was having about taxonomy, folksonomy and the semantic web. “This notion of a wiki has educated our company on the potential of web 2.0,” Birla said. By better understanding the technology, Thomson employees are thinking about new products in light of new business models, and making the Kuhnian shift from print to digital.
“We want to create all types of media,” Brooks said. “It changed the way that the production department thinks of itself. Now we’re seen as a thought leader, which is rare for a production department. We’re proactively coming to the table saying here are ways we can accomplish things.”
Up next, the semantic web and Web 3.0. “We’re always looking for new things to try,” Brooks said.
Wanna Wiki (What’s A Wiki)?
The word “wiki” tends to confuse. Derived from the Hawaiian word for fast (as you probably know), a wiki is simply any website that allows visitors to easily add, remove or change its content. Although many believe the term to be interchangeable with Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia is only one iteration of a wiki in action. (Another point of confusion: wiki is also used to describe the individual threads or posts on a wiki site). Wikis work especially well as mass collaboration tools since everyone can edit the same material, all at once, in a single location.
As an intra-company portal, a wiki not only acts as a central repository to post documents, meeting notes, proposals, etc., but also as a message board where employees can discuss the posted material.
For example, if a group of 20 people has a meeting scheduled for Wednesday, a “Wednesday Meeting” wiki can be created. The wiki would list all of the meeting participants (with links to their contact info) and the agenda for the meeting. A day or two before the meeting, participants would post their contributions – discussion questions, additions, presentations, etc. – for review. During the meeting, the wiki could be brought up as a projection and further discussed. Post-meeting, minute notes are posted and again reviewed by the people in the meeting, and shared with others in the company.
Free wiki software can be downloaded from www.twiki.org. Once installed, the wiki is much like a blog – preformatted and standardized so that anyone can set it up.