Thursday, August 20, 2009

Wiki (Hawaiian for 'quick') session on Wikis at FAO!

Yesterday, @RomoloTassone and I (@gaurisalokhe) ran a 2 hour session on Wikis– part of an ongoing series of workshops on the methods, tools and services that can facilitate knowledge sharing at FAO. The trainings are offered by my division, Knowledge Exchange and Capacity Building Division (KCE), in collaboration with Staff Development Branch (AFHT).

The 2 hour sessions are designed to give participants brief introduction to a knowledge sharing tool or method. This week, we decided to see if there was any demand for Wikis. Given that it is August and most people are not around, we were overwhelmed with the response! In 4 working days, we had over 40 registrations.

The purpose of this session on Wikis was to:
  • Introduce the concept of Wikis
  • Show how Wikis are being used in FAO as well as partner organizations
  • Identify possible cases for the use of Wikis in FAO’s projects and work
During each session, we try to invite a guest speaker who can give us views, experiences and lessons learned from their organizations. This week's invited guest speaker was Tania Jordan, ICT-KM Technical Coordinator.

The session started with introduction of the speakers. These sessions are a result of the Knowledge Share Fair held early this year - during the fair, we gave lot of hands-on training on KS tools and methods and saw that there was extremely high demand for similar sessions.

Romolo then explained what Wikis are and their specific characteristics such as inline editing/saving, easy and open access to history, versioning/differences information and the ability to role back, discussion tag, comparison of edits, notification of edits using emails or RSS, user management/permissions. He also talked about the need for to focus on accountability and transparency, rather than security/authority/ownership. He gave examples of how for a wiki to grow there is a need for "sense of community" and the role of culture (of an organization).

I then followed this by showing examples of 2 Wikis: the Knowledge Sharing Toolkit and Share Fair 2009. The KS Toolkit is an example of long term wiki, a wiki that has a long-term life span. Although it was started by few people, it has now a growing community of 120 participants who actively add/edit its content. The latter is an example of a "short term" wiki which has a limited life span, usually for the duration of an event, project, document preparation, etc. The latter was used in preparation of the Share Fair and has not been used/updated since.

Tania showed some great examples of short-term wikis such as:
  • CGXchange 2.0 (site that gathers tutorials and trainings of the collaboration tools available for the CGIAR staff)
  • CIMMYT Emergencies (site created to inform staff about the swine flu developments in Mexico)
  • Alliance of the CGIAR Centers (the strategic framework of the new CGIAR process is being shared with a Wiki)
  • CGMap Helpdesk (helpdesk site for a system-wide software used by all 15 CGIAR centers)
All of the above are done using Google Sites. Google Sites allows you to make complete websites with pages that have Wiki-like functionality. She also talked about "public" vs. "private" Wikis.

This was followed by a quick hands-on with Wikis. For the hands-on session, we had purposefully decided not to use media Wiki and instead created a test account on Wikispaces. The key differences between the two is the "What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get" (WYSIWYG) editor. The participants were paired up (lesson learned from social bookmarking session!) and asked to create and edit pages, add video or images and visit/edit each other's pages. This went extremely well.

Finally, we had some great discussion around how tools like these could be used within our work for policy development, meeting organization, participants lists or just using it for collaborating planning.

There are several issues that came out of discussion about the use of Wikis.
  • FAO currently supports Wikis using Media Wiki software. This wiki software uses Wiki Text, special markup text. This requires extra learning effort especially when adding tables.
  • Multiple people can edit the same document at the same time. Wiki is collaborative environment but its not a synchronous collaborative environment (as is provided by Google Wave). Sometimes, changes can simply get lost and its some work to find it through the history section!
  • Many Wikis die a premature death because of the lack of incentives in using it. Trust is an important aspect of working with such tools. The rules of engagement - such as who can edit what, how, when to use discussion vs. direct edits - need to be clear and well understood by all involved.
  • We still have a very e-mail heavy culture. If it is not in our in-box, we have a hard time accepting/working with it.
In summary, my two cents, as a Wiki-skeptic, are that Wikis are a great tool when the community is ready for it and there is shared understanding for its need. It is important to do thorough needs analysis before starting up Wikis. And, once it is clear that the optimal solution is a Wiki, then all involved should be brought together, informed, consulted and trained (in case of Media Wiki).

What has been your experience with Wikis? Have they worked in your teams/organizations?

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