Someone asked me the following question:
I'm considering using a wiki as a documentation tool for a collaboratively written project. The main functionally I need is a table-of-contents navigation, probably similar to how a document tree or outline format nests links under a multiple categories.
In response, I wrote up the following review of some of the Wiki and CMS options I've used and am familiar with. This isn't an exhaustive survey of the solutions out there, but my report of solutions I have experience using feel confident recommending. Other suggestions are welcome.
TOC of Single Page
When I left Bell Labs, we were using Twiki and were using the built in TOC variable for pages. Like Word Processing table of contents, this works by editing your page naturally using headings, and then inserting a %TOC% variable at the top of the page. The variable automatically generates a table of contents based on the headings you've used in the page. MediaWiki features a similar TOC variable.
TOC of Multiple Chapters and Pages
If you're looking to create a document that consists of a series of chapters and pages, like a traditional book, then you might be more interested in Drupal's Collaborative Book module. This module allows you to create books with chapters, and assign pages to chapters in the book. You work organically by creating pages and assigning the pages in a hierarchical book outline. The Drupal documentation itself is built as a series of books.
The administrative display for organizing a book is really quite good.
I was working with a client that wanted to basically take a printed publication and later move their editing process to a web-based application that allowed them to provde a companion ebook. The idea of a living document suited itself to using Drupal's book module. With the module, they can create a site organized in chapters as the printed book is, and also export or print the book as a single page PDF.
I had been looking for literature comparing the behavior of Intranet vs. Internet users as follow-on research from a blog entry I wrote about Ze Frank's Web 0.2 presentation and in reponse to a colleague's comment on the subject. The harder questions came up when I began exploring the topic of Internet/Intranet culture. As the increasing community of prosumers push the use of technology, as Internet users flock to social software and collaboration sites, how does this affect users of technology in the enterprise. Are business users taking risks with information technology? If they're not, why not? How does this all impact the evolution of collaborative technologies and how does that information feed back into products.
What I ended up reading didn't really answer all of these questions, but did get me to start thinking more about the evolution of blogs as social software. But, first, I want to talk about what I did find in the literature. The observations I found about intranet users were totally obvious. Culture and politics are key influencers when it comes to collaborating on the intranet. I'd already been saying that in my blog presentations. It's obvious. No major surprises there. Nothing in the research or academic literature seemed to be illuminating beyond that.
In the middle of attempting to read through papers, Boris Mann pointed me to a comment referring to karma as a motivator for collaboration in Drupal. Boris suggested that we might get to a point using Drupal where karma could be the basis for incenting collaboration.
I began wondering how these ideas apply in the corporate enterprise if at all. "This is excellent", I thought to myself after reading through this. Drupal developers thinking about more complex problems related to collaboration and how they can be solved with technology. But, to return to my problem, is this type of enabling technology pointless given a culture where people are not inclined to share? I once called this type of space a clenched-fist knowledge culture.
This is the space I was most concerned about when this inquiry started, because I perceive large companies that don't have a rich participatory information ecology to be positioning themselves for failure when it comes to knowledge management. But, while I'm generally interested in the topic of how to help transform clenched-fist knowledge cultures into open ones, that's not where I want to spend my valuable cycles these days. Instead, I'm interested in what to do to enable participants when the cultural space is open. How do you help them express themselves in that space?
I was reminded of some KM vendor presentations I had been to a few years ago where monetary incentive was mentioned as one key to sustainability. I don't remember the names of the products, but I found the suggestion interesting, but philosophically wrong. Years later, the explosion of blogs as the 99 cent KM solution emerged. The idea of incentive was interesting, but using money as the motivator was wrong-headed. With blogs we see that individuals may be more driven by selfish and unquantifiable incentives, e.g. self-promotion, prestige, authority, participation in a communal system because it gives back what individuals put in. These are not external motivators. They arise organically from within individuals -- from the grassroots.
In spaces where open knowledge sharing exists and where people seem to be getting as much from collaboration as they give, social software seems to fluorish. On the Internet, people take to Wikis, Weblogs, social networking communities and social bookmarking communities like mosquitoes to still water. Viewing the enterprise as a cultural petri dish, all you can do is set up the right environment and watch to see what grows.
For the most part, you can't simply drop social software into any cultural situation and expect it to "take". (I'm thinking about eggs attaching themselves to uterine walls as I write this. Sorry. Enough with the bad metaphors.) Install an enterprise wiki into a cold corporate space and no one will hear it die it's slow death. Perhaps a few users will exploit the technology, but if if the technology doesn't fit in with the culture, you're probably wasting valuable time. At a local level, this might not be the case, but in a large enterprise this might not cut it. Think of behemoth enterprises that drop SharePoint into the mix just because they can. Creating the pre-conditions for the right culture may seem to require withcraft or alchemy rather than business savvy. I can't tell you how to get that kind of change, although I'd like to see literature that talks to that issue.
If and when the cultural pre-conditions are right, then the enabling collaborative technology can be introduced. But we need to be certain that it focuses on objectives that provide value to users, that design for ease of use, efficiency, and relationship formation. When the object of the technology is relevant and the tool is implemented correctly, expression within an open culture may happen naturally and a rich, diverse ecology may emerge.
I like the meeting format described in this Business Week article on Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Products & User Experience at Google.
New features are digitally projected onto the right side of a conference room wall, big as a movie screen. Everything Mayer and others say is transcribed and projected on the left. Underneath both looms a giant mega-timer. Everyone gets an average deadline of 10 minutes. Mayer and her team add and subtract to the feature as time runs down. It is iteration at lightning speed.
While the formal quick pitch format is unnecessary in small groups, what makes sense is that this format allows for new features to be proposed with frequency high up the chain of command in a large organization with some amount of structure in terms of time restraints. I assume engineers working on the project can pitch directly to Mayer. The critique format also allows a good deal of iteration while exploring ideas so they can be worked on some more and revisited. This excerpt describes the process:
What's most fascinating to me is the projection of the demo on the screen and the immediate capture of the discussion, which I assume goes directly into that internal project management system they talk about. That's excellent. Capturing these trasactions of verbal communications, although using brute force methods of manual transcription, is what knowledge management is about. The post-processing and information retrieval in their system is what glues it all together. That they're openly capturing everything in these meetings is what makes it effective KM work. It's not so hard to imagine all the pieces fit together into a product or at least a process that could be sold as an idea for realistic KM at work:
- WebEx type presentation software
- Transcription (manual now, voice recognition later in the retrieval system?)
- Search mechanism with some simple hooks for metadata (parsing for based on minimal formatting conventions, e.g. "[field name]:")
If enterprise meetings all went this way, mining of the types of tacit information usually floating around in conversations might begin to mean a bit more. Taken too far it could make a lot of information also mean less I suppose, but who cares as long as we have bigger hammers to tackle the signal to noise problem in retrieval. So I'm wondering if that type of process could be adopted as a model and be rolled into a solution. I want to see more under the hood at Google.