Shared Insights PCC: AvenueA|Razorfish intranet wiki

I skipped this morning’s taxonomy/folksonomy smackdown featuring Seth Earley and Zach Wahl — I just wasn’t up for that much testosterone this early in the morning – and went to the best practices track to hear about how AvenueA|Razorfish implemented their internal wiki. I’m speaking next, so if this session isn’t sufficiently riveting, I’ll duck out early to review my notes.

Donna Jensen, their senior technical architect, took us through how they use a wiki as an intranet portal. She spent some amount of time first defining wikis and discussing benefits and challenges, particularly when used inside the firewall. She made a crack about how Ph.D. dissertations will be written on many of these points, which isn’t that far from the truth: things like encouraging active versus passive behaviour. And, although she claims that they’re breaking down behaviours tied to organizational silos, she admitted that no one can comment on the CEO’s blog although all others are open territory. At some point, even the top level executives have to learn that if they’re going to commit to Enterprise 2.0, it has to permeate to all levels of the organization: no one should be exempt.

The platform that they used was MediaWiki (the software used to create Wikipedia) on a standard LAMP stack, giving them a completely open source base. They also use WordPress for internal blogs, maintaining the commitment to open source. Although they did do some customization, particularly in terms of creating templates such as project pages, they took advantage of many freely-available third-party extensions for functionality such as tag clouds, calendaring and skins. They use Active Directory for security, and allow access only internal or VPN access: no external access or applications.

AA|RF put in the wiki with only a technical VP and a part-time intern, pretty much out of the box, and found that it wasn’t adopted. They did another cut with Jensen as technical architect (part-time) and a couple more interns, and arrived at their current state: no project management oversight, no content management system, and no creative designer, with the whole thing implemented in about 2,000 person-hours. As a web technology consulting company (although with little Web 2.0 experience), they can get away with this, but you may not want to try this one at home. They used agile scheduling, and eventually brought in some rigorous QA. Jensen feels that their only real mistake was not bringing in a create designer earlier, since the wiki is apparently pretty technical looking. They haven’t yet put a WYSIWYG editor so everyone still needs to work in WikiText, which is likely a bit of a barrier for the non-techies.

Jensen talked about a few byproducts of the wiki adoption, such as the incremental upgrade model that tends to come with open source or SaaS products, rather than the monolithic (and often disruptive) upgrades of proprietary software. She also talked about how many IT departments won’t use open source because it makes them unable to turn to someone who is compelled to help them — in other words, they have to take on the responsibility of finding a solution themselves. Another byproduct is the shift towards open source, and the savings that they can expect by replacing some of their current software platforms and their hefty maintenance fees with open source alternatives.

In their wiki environment, any kind of file can be uploaded, all pages (except the home page) are editable by everyone, and any content except client-confidential information can reside there. I really have to wonder how this would work if they upload a massive number of files: at what point do you need to add a content management system, and how painful is it going to be to do that later? Their wiki home page shows del.icio.us and Flickr feeds, internal blog feeds, Digg items and recent uploaded documents. One audience member asked if that meant that if anyone in the company tagged a public web page, that it would be included on the home page; there was general shock around the room and wonderment that you could do this without having some centralized body approving such content before it was surfaced to the rest of the company. I tried not to laugh out loud; is this such a radical idea? Obviously, the last year of being immersed in Web 2.0 has changed me, and I start wondering which of these things that I would adopt if I were still running a 40-person consulting company. As the session goes on, the same question about how user tagging on the internet drives their intranet home page keeps coming up from the audience over and over.

What I found interesting (and I’m probably blowing their whole game by publishing this), is that they’re using public Web 2.0 tools to feed part of the home page: if something is tagged AARF on del.icio.us or Flickr, it shows up there. For Digg, however, you have to be a friend of AARF to have your items show up. Jensen said that she’ll be changing the AARF tag to something unguessable, although if you know how to track items and users through del.icio.us or Flickr, it wouldn’t be that difficult to figure out their new tag. She also said that they had run some analytics on whether these tags gave away any secrets about what they’re currently researching, and found that the mix is too varied for any patterns to emerge.

The wiki is a portal in a very real sense, which was a bit of a revelation to me: I didn’t previously think of wikis as portals. Everyone has their own people page which they can format and populate as they wish, and which can include their recent file uploads and blog postings. On any page, adding a “portlet” is just a matter of copying and pasting a snippet of PHP code, including copying snippets of code such as the <embed> code provided by YouTube for every video on its site.

They’ve done some cool things with blogs as well, such as having mailing lists corresponding to blogs, and sending an email to that mailing list will auto-post it as a blog entry on the corresponding blog.

Jensen had some great ideas for wiki adoption, often centred around “wikivangelists” getting out there and helping people. I especially like the idea of the “days of wine and wikis” events. :)  And they’re getting some great adoption rates.

I had to leave just before the end: she was running 7 minutes overtime and I had only 15 minutes between sessions to get to my own room to set up. It was hard to tear myself away, however; I found both Jensen’s presentation and the audience feedback to be riveting.

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