Chapter 
1

What is a Wiki?

Updated  
September 23, 2021
   ·   By  
Melanie Broder

A wiki is a collaborative site where users can add, edit or remove content.

From fansites to encyclopedias, wikis are one of the most popular ways to read, write, and share information online. As community-driven projects, wikis thrive thanks to grassroots networks of people that run them.

When we started Slite in 2016 as a notes app for teams, we didn't know that we'd become fanatical about wikis. As our team grew from a single home base in Paris, to a constellation of offices around the world, we realized that we needed to share more than notes. We needed a home base for gathering, organizing, and distributing team knowledge. Now, our Slite contains ideas, projects, discussions, sketches, guidebooks, and glossaries. It's basically our collective brain.

Wikis for productivity are relatively new, but the concept of a wiki is almost as old as the internet itself. In this chapter we'll look at the structure, purpose, and benefits of wikis.

What does 'wiki' mean?

HNL_Wiki_Wiki_Bus (1).jpg
Source: Andrew Laing / Wikimedia Commons

The word wiki means "quick" in the Hawaiian language, and the inspiration for the first wiki came from a Honolulu airport bus called the Wiki Wiki Shuttle. Ward Cunningham, the first wiki software developer and inventor of the Wiki Wiki Web in 1995, chose this term because he dubbed his wiki as,"the simplest online database that could possibly work."

Since Ward Cunningham, the word wiki has taken on many other meanings. A quick search in your web browser will tell you that some identify wiki as an acronym that stands for what I know is or world internet knowledge index, although this was not Cunningham's original intent. It's kind of like how Adidas stands for founder Adi Dassler, not All day I dream about sports. Anyway...

What does a wiki do?

Put simply, a wiki is a website, database or online community that is managed by its users. Accordingly, any user is able to add, edit or remove content. Wikis usually have different pages dedicated to different topics or themes. They're powered by technology known as a wiki engine, or wiki software.

Wikipedia: The classic example

Wikipedia calls itself "the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit."

The most famous example of a wiki is Wikipedia. Wikipedia actually isn't considered an individual wiki, but rather a digital encyclopedia or collection of hundreds of wikis in different languages. In 2021, the English Wikipedia contained over 6 million articles and was the 13th most popular website in the world. That's a lot of server storage just for wikis.

Wikis: A broader definition

Not all wikis are like Wikipedia. Most are more specific. Good alternate wiki examples are the fansites for the fictional universes of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars. Each fansite contains encyclopedic information about characters, settings, and storylines.

Other examples include private wikis. If Wikipedia and fansites are completely open to the public, private wikis use permit control to limit who can see them. Private wikis are often used by companies and teams who want to  store proprietary data and develop knowledge over time.

What are wikis used for in business?

Company wikis are used to share learning and knowledge in a team.

The Handbook is part of our team wiki at Slite.

The purpose of a wiki is twofold. Whether you’re using a wiki for professional or personal reasons, you're doing so because you want to either:

  • Find information (learn something)

or

  • Contribute information (teach something)

Since we're focusing on professional wikis in this guide, let's dig deeper in that context. A few of the most common uses of professional wikis are:

  • Onboard new employees : Wikis make great resources for new employees to find information and training materials. They will also save time in the onboarding process.
  • Share company resources:  Wikis are great tools for documenting your company's many processes. Once filled with documents, wikis become resources that your employees turn to whenever they need a burning question answered.
  • Answer technical questions: To avoid employees asking the IT department the same questions over and over again, you can include a technical FAQ section in your wiki.
  • Store historical documents, policies & procedures: The archive function of most wikis helps you maintain a clean interface while still hanging on to older documents, and keep a record of company history.
  • Manage a specific project: Wiki pages are also great collaboration tools if you want to brainstorm, upload content, or write as group.
Ready to start creating your own company wiki? Join Slite for free-->

Why is a wiki valuable to a growing team?

Wikis make working together across locations and departments possible. This is especially the case if your team is remote, but wikis can make any team's workflow more efficient. Some of the main benefits of using a wiki include:

1. Find information easily

According to McKinsey research, employees spend 20% of their time at work searching for information. If you're trying to complete a task, the last thing you want to do is to shuffle through desktop files, browser tabs, emails, and chat threads to find what you're looking for.

A good wiki not only centralizes information, but contains robust search features to help you find it more quickly.

Search for internal documents from one central location: your wiki

In Slite, when you need to find an answer, all you have to do is type the topic or related keyword into the search function and the document you need will come up right away, along with others that may be relevant. You don’t have to look high and low for the information you need – It’s right at your fingertips.

When set up for daily use, a wiki can become a steady flow of information for employees.

2. Collects data from many tools in one place

Do you ever find yourself starting the day by opening up several different apps or tools, just to catch up?

From several apps and tabs --> one wiki

Instead of starting the day scattered, a wiki gives you the birds' eye view of projects, strategy, and workflow, while also containing integrations so you can easily connect to specialized tools that house more granular data.

3. Aids independent work

We’ve all been there. You have a pressing question from an important client and you can't get ahold of anyone in your company who knows the answer. Luckily, a wiki can help you sidestep this problem.

As the home for team knowledge, a wiki contains the answers to company FAQs. It can also host the planning and execution info surrounding specific projects. In each case, senior employees can add their specialized knowledge to the wiki in order to empower junior team members to work out solutions on their own. Newer employees can still ask questions, but when they find the answers themselves, they will feel a sense of ownership and accomplishment.

4. Saves meeting time

One of the benefits of making more information instantly accessible and empowering employees to work independently, is that the need for meetings becomes less urgent. Wikis won't eliminate in-person or Zoom meetings, but they can free up time for brainstorming or strategizing, rather than going over the basics again and again.

Check out this meeting minutes template to see how documentation can make meetings run more smoothly.

4. Lowers business costs

For all the benefits they provide, wikis are extremely cost-effective.

Wiki software is often priced based on file storage and team size

There are many different ways to go about creating a corporate wiki, but know that there’s a variety of software tools out there that can help you. Much of this software is new, well-designed, and either free or extremely reasonably priced.

We work hard to make Slite a cost-friendly solution for putting together your first company wiki. The price tiers are adaptable to size, and we even have a free plan to try with your team.

5. Structures your knowledge & documentation

Wiki engines go beyond helping you create and refer back to information, they also allow you to create links between your content. This ultimately builds a nested library of knowledge, enabling you to navigate between content that's stored in a logical way.

Smart Tables gather related documents in one location.

In Slite, you can create channels where documents are stored, as well as Smart Tables that link to documents for specific teams or projects, like the one shown above for performance review templates.

6. Makes complex information visual and easy to understand

Did you know the human brain process visual information 60,000 times faster than text? A wiki that includes images and data visualizations will be a more effective communication and learning tool. In Slite, you can add the following elements into your document with just a click:

  • Files
  • Images
  • Document links
  • General links
  • YouTube links
  • Videos
  • Google Drive links
  • Code snippets

7. Saves document versions and editing history

Last but not least, good wiki software stores different versions of your documents while they undergo edits, changes, and developments during their lifecycle.

Anyone with permissions and editing rights can access and edit the documents they need to. Their edits won't show up with cumbersome alerts, red lines or comment boxes, but you'll still be able to review past versions when necessary.

Better still, wikis are easy to access. Your team members don't need to download any special software like they do with Word programs. Everything is kept and securely stored online, making it available at any time.

The long-term benefits of using a wiki

We love all the many features wiki software can offer. But wikis are not just tools that solve the immediate problem of document storage and access, they also affect your team communication and culture long-term. Here's how.

Fosters a learning culture and community

One of the beautiful things about public wikis like Wikipedia is the communities they create among enthusiastic individuals eager to share their passion and expertise. This also translates to professional environments.

When colleagues get into the habit of collaborating and sharing knowledge in the form of a professional wiki, it creates a positive work environment that revolves around learning. This spirit extends into all areas of the workplace.

Keeps human resources human

Starting a new job is an overwhelming experience. It always feels like there's too much to learn, not enough time, and few resources to boot. Not to mention, HR professionals quickly get overwhelmed when they have to create bespoke programming materials for every new hire that comes in the door. Wikis make onboarding a seamless experience by storing documents in a single location, where new hires can access them at any time and read at their own pace. This way, all the documentation basics are covered, so that HR professionals can focus on what really matters: making new team members feel at home.

Increases ownership

Wikis foster accountability by making processes and action steps more transparent. With an encyclopedia of knowledge and content at your fingertips, you can take charge of your own workflow, without having to worry about knowledge barriers.

Knowledge is built one doc at a time

This chapter may make your team wiki seem like a big project. But if you invite everyone to contribute one doc, you'll already have an information-rich knowledge base. So remember take it one doc at a time, and continue to revise, contribute, and improve information over time. You'll be amazed at how fast knowledge grows.

Melanie Broder
Written by

Melanie Broder is on the Marketing team at Slite, where she works on all things content. She helps Slite users gain new skills through guides, templates, and videos. She lives in New York City, where she likes to write fiction and run loops around Central Park.

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