How To Marshal Wikis

Some human resource professionals are using wikis to communicate, collaborate.

By Bill Roberts Dec 1, 2008
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Ten human resource country managers for a European shipping company want to share ideas and promote discussion about their personnel practices with an eye toward harmonizing their HR processes. Gathering everyone in one place at one time is not feasible—too costly, too hard to coordinate and too complicated a task to complete in a one- or two-day meeting. Besides, ideas need to be shared and discussed over time.

Conference calls won’t be much better, and the effort lies beyond the scope of e‑mail. Who wants dozens or hundreds of e-mails ping-ponging around for however long harmonization might take?

The HR team uses a wiki, a virtual workplace on the corporate intranet. Of all Web 2.0 technologies, wikis might be the most suited for collaborative project work. Wikis are being adopted at the grass roots of many organizations, especially by information technology, marketing and sales departments. HR professionals have fallen behind the curve, but the wiki has practically no downside for collaboration among HR staff.

Here’s why.

Perpetual Knowledge

A wiki is a knowledge base developed over time by users with access to create and edit text on the site. It can be a repository for existing text documents, spreadsheets, graphics and other material. These can be uploaded to the wiki, then downloaded by users. Now, tools are available that can import content from separate text documents and spreadsheets into HTML code on the wiki, allowing users to edit that material on the site. Wikis have distinct pages for different topics, and they come with search features.

The wiki was developed in the mid-1990s, but the original editing tools required knowledge of HTML code. The breakthrough came with the development of user-friendly editing tools similar to any word processor.

Wikis supplant what users try to do by sending around e-mails with attached text documents or spreadsheets. E-mail “pushes” messages to recipients, all of whom get their own copy with any attachments. But if every recipient makes changes on her version of the document, revision control becomes a nightmare. If a single copy of a document is sent to users in succession, the revision process becomes interminable.

In contrast to e-mail, “a wiki is a ‘pull’ medium—it pulls people in to look at content on a single shared page that a whole team can edit,” says Stewart Mader, wiki consultant and author of two books­—Wikipatterns (John Wiley & Sons, 2007) and Using Wiki in Education (Kindle, 2006)—and a blog, Grow Your Wiki. “This streamlines collaboration and builds a stronger, more cohesive community.”

Dozens of open-source wiki software packages are available, and at least three enterprise-strength versions can be licensed for corporate intranets or obtained under contract on a hosted basis, alleviating having to maintain, upgrade or back up the wiki.

Nearly every Fortune 500 company has wikis in use, but few have a corporate wiki strategy, says Peter Thoeny, chief technology officer of Twiki.Net Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., which licenses an
enterprise-strength solution. “Wikis almost always start at grass roots. Some geek in engineering, IT or marketing thinks they are cool and downloads one of the open-source varieties.”

Michael Rudnick, global practice leader for intranets and portals at Watson Wyatt Worldwide Inc., an HR consulting firm in Arlington, Va., says that whatever the adoption curve, HR lags, and for at least one good reason: It is inappropriate to place certain HR-related content—anything containing employees’ personal information—on a wiki for any user to edit. A wiki means giving up control over content. In certain cases, for legal and ethical reasons, HR professionals could never do that. Yet “there are many other HR functions where using a wiki would not break any laws or raise compliance and regulatory issues,” Rudnick argues.

With that in mind, consider the following examples of HR wiki use. Here’s a snapshot of each, along with lessons learned.

Harmonizing Practices

As shown at the beginning of this article, shipping company NYK Group Europe Ltd., a London-based subsidiary of the NYK Line Ltd. of Tokyo, is one of few companies with an organizationwide push for wiki use that includes HR.

Alek Lotoczko, project manager for the corporate intranet and driver of the wiki project, says NYK launched the effort because managers believe wikis and other Web 2.0 tools can drive innovation, improve efficiency and attract younger workers who expect to use such tools.

NYK uses a wiki developed by Atlassian Pty. Ltd. of Sydney, Australia, on a hosted option. Lotoczko says tools from Atlassian and others allow users to transform text documents and spreadsheets into wiki text.

NYK’s HR professionals launched a wiki in March. “We created a section of the wiki for European HR managers,” says Michael Delpeache, HR manager for NYK Line UK, a division of NYK Group Europe. The first goal: to discuss policies. While employment law differs in each country, HR principles tend to be the same, yet not consistent among the company’s operations, he says.

articipants will share and discuss processes in each country and which of these can be made consistent throughout Europe. Delpeache says promoting wiki use takes persistence. To date, all the country managers have participated in this process.

NYK’s worker management council also uses the HR wiki. A consultative committee of about a dozen members meets regularly and uses the wiki to draft meeting agendas, discuss issues and get reaction from council members to proposed actions, Delpeache says.

One lesson: “Some people are still sometimes reluctant to use the wiki because it can be perceived as a bit of an unknown. We have offered training, and we have a number of informal wiki evangelists who people know they can go to if they need any training,” says Delpeache.

Developing Strategy

Nokia Corp., based in Espoo, Finland, has a companywide wiki strategy, but HR has a wiki strategist—Matthew Hanwell, senior manager for new Web experiences. Nokia has more than 2,000 wikis; the first came in “under the radar” about four years ago, Hanwell says. The company uses an enterprise solution from Twiki.Net and hosts and maintains the software in-house.

Human resource information system (HRIS) project documentation was the first HR wiki application, Hanwell says. “Now, the staff members in our HR development organization are also active users of a wiki.” The worldwide team of about 100 HR professionals uses the wiki as a forum to exchange ideas, share content and collaborate on creating content for learning, training, leadership development and other organizational development activities. Nokia’s “Infopedia” demonstrates another HR use: The site tells employees what they need to know about working at the global company.

“Wikis are very good for co-creation of content,” Hanwell says. “All discussion and edits are in the context of that one document.”

The challenge: “It is very much text-based, and people won’t always communicate that way. They use drawings, instant messaging, video, audio and others.” Another problem is the lack of an offline capability comparable to the way a user can download e-mail and read it on a plane, Hanwell notes.

One lesson: Project teams enhance the power of the wiki when they periodically hold telephone conferences to discuss the material while each looks at the wiki.

Networking Consultants

Emergent Solutions Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., is an HR consulting firm with a staff of seven and a growing worldwide network of 65 professionals the company draws on for coaching, leadership development and other organizational project work. Emergent uses a wiki for its own internal HR practices and for project management when it puts together a team of HR consultants for global engagements, according to Claudia Miro, director of client services and the firm’s wiki czar.

The wiki contains communication such as internal processes, administrative documents or letters of agreement, Miro says. Then, each account has its own page offering coaching instructions or logistics.

Emergent began using the wiki from Socialtext Inc., based in Palo Alto, Calif., on a hosted basis in March, with the intention of using the rest of the year to build traction. More than half the consultants use the wiki to share ideas. Miro says the firm intends to ramp up wiki use in 2009 and find applications for it.

Miro describes “an ongoing process of gardening,” different from editing or updating content and more akin to “periodic cleaning up, pruning and weeding.”

Emergent’s clients include several Silicon Valley-based high-tech companies. Yet many of these companies are not using wikis in HR. However, once they use Emergent for coaching or leadership development and see the wiki in use, they become interested in adopting wikis for their own purposes.

Miro says her company intends to capitalize on this interest in the future and help other HR departments adopt the technology.

Technical Adjustments

Agilent Technologies Inc., in Santa Clara, Calif., uses a wiki to collect and share information from campus visits by members of its university relations teams, who are always looking for promising job recruits.

Committee members at Brown University in Providence, R.I., use a wiki in a project to renovate the university’s employee onboarding processes. And one law firm uses a wiki to post all pertinent HR-related information such as vacation policies, sick leave and job postings. As all the examples suggest, wikis can benefit HR professionals’ internal collaboration.

Many HR professionals may still be adjusting to the technological convulsions of the past decade—hung over from massive HRIS implementations, heads spinning from the move to web-based self-service and outsourcing of many processes. They’re also grappling with new ways technological change impacts businesses.

The last thing many want to face is adoption of yet another technology tool that might change their daily chores. But that would be shortsighted. The wiki is one of the easier technologies to adopt, and among Web 2.0 tools the one most conducive to collaboration.


 The author is contributing editor for technology for HR Magazine and is based in Silicon Valley.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Social Networking at the Office. (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: Counting on Collaboration (HR Magazine)

SHRM research: Knowledge Management Overview (Briefly Stated)

Blog: Grow Your Wiki (SHRM Online Compensation & Benefits Focus Area)

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