The old way wasn't working for Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW), the Europe-based investment banking division of Dresdner Bank. As the company expanded into new markets and became more decentralized, it felt its project management software and e-mail couldn't meet its communication and organizational needs. That's when it decided to take a chance on a relatively new technology known as a wiki, a type of Web site that allows users to add and edit content in real time.
DrKW started its first wiki in 1997, well before anyone was using the term in a corporate setting. Since then the company has found many uses for the application. Its design team uses it to track the completion of its Web-based projects in real time. And a wing of the bank's equity financing team uses a wiki to supplement e-mail, eliminating the need to sift through inboxes.
"A wiki is pretty close to being as simple to use as e-mail," says Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, the company that provides DrKW with its wiki. "It's the simplicity and ease of use that have made them so popular."
Besides being user friendly, wikis are inexpensive, especially when compared to applications such as Lotus Notes. "We offer 80 percent of the functionality of a full-fledged collaborative system at 20 percent of the cost," Mayfield says.
Wikis are fast becoming the next must-have corporate communications tool. As in-house counsel struggle to find cheaper ways to manage matters and communicate with each other and business units, wikis will become ever more enticing.
On The Horizon
So far only a few big-name companies such as Best Buy, Yahoo!, Nokia and Walt Disney Co. have jumped on the wiki bandwagon, though the Gartner Group, a technology research company, predicts that by 2009, 50 percent of companies will have adopted the wiki as a collaboration tool. The brain behind the wiki is programmer Ward Cunningham. He invented the wiki in 1995 as a way to open the channels of communication for a 500-member group that was discussing alterations in program writing style. At first the group used a mailing list to share ideas. But soon the sheer number of e-mails bogged down the collaborative process. That's when Cunningham realized there had to be a better way.
"The Internet has somehow turned into a shopping mall instead of what it was supposed to be," Cunningham says. "But the wiki is kind of hanging on to that initial dream. That dream was imagining a world of scientists communicating."
Wikis aren't so much new technology as they are a reconfiguration of existing technology. Basically, wikis are Web sites that any user can generate and edit. Edits are automatically stored in a log, allowing users to revert the wiki back to any of its previous states. Some wikis include applications that allow users to track a project's progress and make comments on updates. Users don't need to learn complex mark-up languages because wikis have an interface that's similar to those word processors use.
The most famous wiki of all is Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki), a digital, Web-based encyclopedia that rivals Encyclopedia Britannica. Anyone can register and create or edit an article (though the organizers have put policies in place to restrict access). Users can embed links within articles to tie multiple entries together. If someone posts an erroneous article or makes poor edits, users can roll pages back to a previous version with a click of the mouse.
While the blog is still center stage, wikis are gearing up to be the new starlet on the corporate technology scene. This comes as no surprise to Cunningham, who sees the corporate infrastructure changing to accommodate wikis.
"We're less about manufacturing these days as we are about intellectual property, about knowledge," Cunningham says. "The rise of wikis says more about how companies will be organized and how they will distribute work than anything about technology."
If you are to believe Cunningham, wikis won't change the world; the world is changing for the wiki. And he's probably right. With more companies doing business globally, wikis fill a hole that e-mail only skirts around.
"We have seen our wikis used in the M&A space," says Ken Norton, vice president of products at Jotspot, a California-based company that provides corporate wiki applications. "You have all these different parties involved that need to come together, keep track of all the due-diligence documents and draft a term sheet. Wikis are great for that because it ties together dispersed parties."
Wikis also can be more secure than e-mail, a key consideration when dealing with confidential documents. If in-house counsel send a draft of a brief via e-mail, then that draft may circulate to others outside the intended circle. Yet, wikis restrict access. If a lawyer posts a draft on a password-protected, firewalled wiki, then only privileged parties can access it.
Aside from surpassing e-mail as a group communication tool, wikis also rival collaborative software, such as Lotus Notes and SharePoint. Take the previous example about the draft. In that case, anyone with access could view the draft on the wiki and revise it in real time. This creates a central, easy-to-access location. Because everyone views the same version, there is no confusion over which is the most current. And if someone makes a bad edit, a click of the mouse reinstates a previous version.
"Wikis make it easy for people to put things up and modify them," says Kevin Werbach, a technology analyst and assistant professor of legal studies at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "They are extremely good when the key elements are to make sure that information gets out to everyone and that things can be updated quickly.
"For companies that can't afford a full-fledged Intranet, wikis are an inexpensive substitute. If purchased through a company such as Socialtext or Jotspot, a company can expect to spend pennies on the dollars it otherwise would have spent. And unlike a static Intranet, a wiki also organically grows as people contribute. This makes maintenance easier because rather than designating an IT person to maintain an Intranet, everyone upkeeps the wiki merely by contributing.
"Wikis can keep track of anything that goes on inside a company," Norton says. "You don't have to think about how you are going to structure your Intranet. You can just let it evolve."
Keep It Simple
Yet as useful as wikis may sound, they will never fully replace complex project-management software.
"For project management, there are some high-end managers that are building ballparks and skyscrapers that need a lot more complexity," Norton says. "But for those of us who are managing projects day-to-day, it's a great solution."
For legal departments that are used to a rigid hierarchical structure, getting used to wikis' democratic environment may be a hurdle. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of allowing others to modify information.
"Legal departments vary in terms of culture," Werbach says. "Some are very structured and hierarchical, and some are very flat and collaborative. That will influence how they use the wiki."
Whatever the corporate culture may be, wikis have a place in corporate legal departments.
"Anything that individuals can do by themselves, they are probably just fine using personal productivity tools," Cunningham says. "But if there is any task where people need to work together, there is a place for a wiki."
Like e-mails and digitally stored voicemail messages, wiki material is discoverable. This means legal departments need to set up policies to control what employees are posting.
"Whenever you create an online, durable database, you are creating something that is discoverable," warns Denise Howell, an attorney at Reed Smith in Los Angeles and a pioneering legal blogger. "You want to have some guidelines and policies in place."
Constructing a new policy may seem like a hassle, but the beauty of wikis is that the majority of what companies have established as standards for e-mail use also applies to wikis.
"You have to treat the wiki the same way you are treating these other means of communication and realize that corporate communications can be smoking guns," Howell says.