Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

In The Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki Wiki Room

I don't think that many people would dispute the success or value of the Wiki. For those of you who have been living in a cave for the past two years, a Wiki is a collaborative document system, environment, or philosophy, depending on who you talk to. While the most famous is Wikipedia, the online, user written encyclopedia, there are zillions of Wikis on the Internet. Most are information repositories of some sort, especially on-line documentation.

The advantage of the Wiki is that it is very easy to write and edit entries. Formatting those entries, while a bit unconventional, is also pretty easy. This yields highly attractive, easy to navigate online documents.

Deploying a Wiki application, such as MediaWiki, the software behind Wikipedia, is also incredibly easy assuming you have a working L/WAMP stack operating. I've worked with all types of collaborative systems including Lotus Notes and a number of knowledgebases, and few are as easy to use as a MediaWIki and none are as easy to install.

Some time ago, I installed and started using a Wiki for tracking storage companies, my bread and butter. That in many ways is a conventional use of a Wiki. Think of it as building an encyclopedia of storage companies. Nothing Earth shattering there.

I also started using my Wiki for development projects. I build my own applications from time to time to provide me something useful, try out technology that people are buzzing about, and simply to amuse myself. On my latest project I used a Wiki to help me to design the application and capture my decisions along the way. What I found was a product managers dream application.

Anyone who has had to build product specs, PRDs, etc. knows what a pain they can be. They are dynamic, require input from lots of often unwilling people, and whole sections usually need to be written by specialists. In other words, they require collaboration, the stock in trade of a Wiki. The same would go with design documents that engineers use.

As time has gone on, I have been able to add and expand sections, eliminate others, and make changes as needed. All without losing the thoughts behind them. As is typical with web applications, you can link to other documents or sections of documents with easy including outside ones. If there were engineers writing the technical design elements, they could simply write them in. If a change occurred to a feature requirement, everyone would know immediately.

Contrast that with the way this is usually done. Dozens of Word documents tossed at the product manager who has to somehow integrate then all without getting something terribly wrong. Playing cut and paste with e-mails and other documents, trying to pull them together into a unified whole but never having a sense of the entire project. Gack! Makes me choke just thinking about it.

Heck, by the end of this, I'll almost have a design manual on how to write this type of application, useful to anyone who would want to do the same in the future. Development and knowledge capture all at once.

This is the killer app for product managers. Using a Wiki, you could pull together requirements documents in half the time and tie them back to the design documents and anything else associated with the product. tech support would love what comes out of this if QA used it. And it cost practically nothing to deploy. The software is free as are most of the infrastructure.

Free and transformative. What could be better.

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