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What is a wiki?

10 min
April 29, 2021
A wiki is a collaborative content management system where users can add, edit or remove content. This article contains a guide to help you build your wiki.

What does wiki stand for?

The word wiki stands for "quick" in the Hawaiian language. Ward Cunningham, who was the first wiki software developer and inventor of the 1995 Wiki Wiki Web, chose this term to describe it because he dubbed wiki wiki as "the simplest online database that could possibly work."

Since Ward Cunningham, the word wiki has taken on more definitions. 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 Ward Cunningham's original intention.

What is a wiki?

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

Wikipedia: The classic example

Of course, this 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 2020, the English Wikipedia contained over 6 million articles and was one of the most widely-viewed websites in the world. That's certainly a chunk of web server storage.

Wikis: A broader definition

Not all wikis are like Wikipedia, however. Wikis are content management systems that are popular for creating, organizing, and managing information of any kind. A good example of this is the fact that the popular stories and fictional universes Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Alice, and Starwars each have their own dedicated wiki website.

Different still, some wikis are completely open to the public, while private wikis are internally-focused and use permit control to limit who can see them. This makes wiki systems highly useful for professional teams who want to develop knowledge bases and store information to get their questions answered fast.

A wiki usually looks a lot like a regular website. It has a home page where users can navigate to different pages on different topics. It also often features a button where users can log in with their email address to edit and revise content.

Some people describe a wiki as an interactive online dictionary or encyclopedia, and this is why!

Wikis also have an assigned system administrator or two who take care of things like revisions, problems, and access control.

What are wikis used for?

Screenshot of a company wiki made in Slite
Example of our own wiki at Slite with a zoom on the "People Handbook"

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

  • Find information

 and

  • Contribute information

Since this article is focusing on professional wikis, let's dive into that context a little deeper. No matter what industry or type of company you work for, a wiki is a great content management system that will bring benefits to your team. Once you get started with your wiki, you will never look back. Here are just a few of the most common uses of professional wikis:

  • Employee onboarding & company handbook creation: Wikis make great resources for new employees to find information and training materials. They will also save you time in the onboarding process
  • An ongoing resource: Excellent wikis become resources that your employees turn to whenever they need a burning question answered. They're also great for documenting your company's many processes. However, to make this dream a reality you need to ensure that all your employees are contributing consistently to your wiki page
  • Technical help: To avoid employees asking the IT department the same questions over and over again, it is a great idea to include a technical FAQ section in your wikis
  • Archiving old versions of documents, policies & procedures: This allows you to stay organized while still hanging on to documents if you ever need to refer back to them
  • Managing a specific project: Wiki pages are also great collaboration tools if you want to dedicate one to work on a specific project

Why is using a wiki important?

Using a wiki is important because it will help your team collaborate better. This is especially the case if you're working as a member of a remote team, but is also beneficial to any team's workflow. Speaking concretely, some of the main benefits of using a wiki include:

1. Consolidating your company's collection of knowledge

As the old saying goes, no one is an expert in everything. Even though you might find that some of the higher-ups or more experienced employees at your company become wikis themselves, there is something powerful about consolidating your company's knowledge into one central place.

When assembled correctly, a wiki can become a fountain of knowledge for your employees now and in the future. Putting one together often feels like an encyclopedia project. Continue to revise, contribute, and improve information over the years and watch how the baseline knowledge of your employees skyrockets.

2. Avoiding tricky situations

We’ve all been there. You have a pressing question from an important client and you can't get a hold of anyone in your company who knows the answer. Luckily, a wiki can help avoid those kinds of situations.

One of the great features of excellent professional wikis is that they contain the answers to all your most important questions. Even better, if you put together wiki pages dedicated to specific projects, it’s even more likely you’ll have all the information you need at your fingertips.

3. Search functionalities

If you’re looking for information, the last thing you want to do is find yourself wasting time searching through desktop files, emails, and old chat threads. One of the best features of good wiki software is their robust search functionalities.

When you need to find an answer, all you have to do is type it into the search function and it will come up right away. This leads to increased efficiency as you don’t have to look high and low for the information you need. It’s right at your fingertips.

4. Cost effectiveness

Picture introducing Slite pricing

For all the benefits they provide, wikis are extremely cost effective. There are many different ways to go about creating a private wiki, but know that there’s a variety of software out there that can help you. Much of this software is new, cutting edge, and either free or extremely reasonably priced.

Slite is a great solution if you're looking for the perfect tool to put together your company wiki. You'll only pay for active users every month, so the price is tight to your usage!

5. Creating an intertwined map of 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 an intertwined map of knowledge, enabling you to navigate between content when it's necessary and logical.

If you put together an internal company wiki on Slite, they make it easy for you to create a link to another document, whether it is internal or external. In just a few clicks, you can add the following elements into your document with ease:

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

 

6. Version control & editing features

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 benefits of using a wiki

Source

As you've likely already deduced, there are so many benefits to using a wiki. Nevertheless, here's a selection of the top benefits according to us, just to really drive the point home.

Fosters a great company culture & work environment

Whether we're talking about Wikipedia, fictional universe wikis, private wikis or otherwise, one of the beautiful things about wikis of any kind is the communities they create. 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 teamwork. This spirit extends into all areas of the workplace.

Saves time

No matter what industry you work in, we all waste a lot of time looking for information. Using a wiki is an absolute time saver because you know that all your most important data is stored in one place. Even better, you probably have a search great feature you can use to find it in just a few clicks.

Helps archive information

Wikis are also great tools for organizing not-so-current documents. As a wiki page progresses through its lifecycle, it might eventually become irrelevant.

The great thing about wikis is they often have archive features so you can remove an old article from the main page while still keeping it organized with other outdated pages and documentation. This is a great way to keep tabs on company archives should you ever need to access them.

Is a great human resources tool

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. Wikis are great because they're great human resources tools. New hires love them because they're helpful resources and make onboarding a seamless experience. HR professionals are also fans of wikis because they save them time.

Keeps professional teams informed

Wiki changes, edits, and revisions are updated in real-time. This is a great feature because you can be sure that your colleagues are always able to access the most up-to-date information, rather than making silly mistakes due to documentation and pages that haven’t been updated.

Increases accountability

Something that's really special about wikis is how they foster accountability. With an encyclopedia of knowledge and content at your fingertips, no one can make any excuses. Forget about colleagues coming up with stories about how they didn't have time to look something up or couldn't find a specific link or piece of text.

What are the 2 types of wiki sites?

There are two main types of wikis: internal and external. Let's dive into the differences between them a little further:

Internal wikis

An internal wiki is a wiki with limited public permissions. Basically, they can't be accessed by just anyone like Wikipedia. Only users from a specific community with permissions are able to access them.

Internal wikis often act as internal knowledge bases for companies or professional teams. Only employees or those with special permissions are able to access, add, and edit content. They have layers of security that keep information private.

For this reason, internal wikis are often referred to corporate wikis or private wikis, depending if they are used for professional or personal purposes.

External wikis

On the other hand, external wikis are wikis that can be accessed by the public. Wikipedia and other similar online encyclopedias would fall into the external wiki category. However, they also have a professional use.

Companies are increasingly using external wikis as a kind of self-service customer service website. When customers run into problems, they're able to consult the company's wiki, get their questions answered, and troubleshoot their own problems. This is a great resource for customers, but also cuts down on customer service representatives spending hours on the phone answering the same questions.

If you're interested in learning more about using external wikis and knowledge bases for customer service actions, we've written an article for that.

How to create your own wiki

By now, you might be wondering how you and your team can get in on all this wiki greatness. There are many ways to put together a wiki, but we've outlined how to do so step-by-step in our humble opinion.

It's also important to keep in mind that wikis are collaborative databases and as such, should be created and designed collaboratively.

Step 1: Identify the contents of your wiki

You're putting together a wiki for a reason. Whether you want to prioritize creating an ongoing professional resource for employees or a tool for employee onboarding, it's important to determine what kind information you want your wiki to contain at the outset.

You may also have existing information that you want to integrate into your new wiki. Be sure to collect that documentation, while reviewing it and editing it as necessary.

When determining exactly what content you want in your wiki, it's a good idea to have a brainstorming session so you don't miss anything. Two (or many) heads are better than one, after all. Another option would be meeting with a colleague who has great general knowledge about your company. This might be an office manager, a general manager, a communications specialist or some kind of internal coordinator.

Step 2: Locate collaborators & resources

Now that you've determined the knowledge that needs to make up your wiki, you'll need to figure out where to get that knowledge from.

Remember that this knowledge should not come from just one author. When it comes to writing wiki content, the more the merrier. Figure out which of your colleagues are the best sources for the information and documentation you need to collect. This will likely mean consulting leaders from every major team in your company. You might even decide to reach out to experts outside your company's structure.

Step 3: Have a kick-off meeting

This step is essential to put together a highly effective wiki system. Holding a kick-off meeting with all the people who will be contributing to your wiki's development is vital because you'll be able to:

  • Introduce the content management system you've chosen to team members and show them how it works.
  • Explain the structure, design, and logic behind your future wiki.
  • Produce valuable meeting minutes and an initial project plan that will outline the framework of your wiki project and keep everyone on track and accountable.
  • Bring everyone on board with the new wiki undertaking psychologically.
  • Answer any questions or provide clarifications as necessary.


Step 4: Use a wiki template

Source

Let's be honest, creating a wiki from scratch is an intimidating task. If you currently find yourself in that situation, it will be extremely beneficial for you to get started using a wiki template. This will help you save time and make sure you don't forget anything when taking the first steps in your wiki development.

Best of all, Slite has a wiki template that's ready for you to use right away. It's easy to use, completely customizable. And you can try it for free.

Step 5: Assign pages & establish author deadlines

Now, you're ready to get started writing the contents of your wiki. You should have already introduced your wiki technology and explained your future wiki's structure to everyone who will be working on it in your kick-off meeting.

At this stage, you should put together a timeline for your wiki project and start delegating tasks. Determine the right people for different sections and the best use of their time. Think about what kind of information you want on different wiki web pages and determine the best people for the job.

While assigning work, allow for flexibility to fit in with people's existing work loads. Establish deadlines, check-ins, meetings, and milestones in order to track your progress.

Step 6: Review your wiki page content

When you start collecting your wiki content, it should all go through an editing and review process. Some team members will likely be stronger writers than others. You'll need to make sure that there aren't any errors, inaccurate information or unnecessary sections.

The best content for your future wiki users and viewers will be clear, concise, and accurate. Avoid including information that's overly long-winded or confusing.

Step 7: Host a focus group for users

Before your wiki is 100% ready to go, you'll want to do some testing. At the end of the day, a company wiki should be a useful tool that's easy to navigate, not something that causes confusion and headache.

Assemble a group of people from your company that can beta-test your new wiki. It's best if these people did not work on the development of your wiki so they're looking at it with fresh eyes.

Be sure to ask your testing group the following questions:

  • Is there any missing information? What knowledge gaps stand out?
  • Is the wiki easy to navigate? If there are any, what navigation or design problems come up?
  • What general challenges do they face with the wiki?
  • Is the wiki organized in a logical way? How could it be improved?

 

Step 8: Distribute your wiki company-wide

The finish line is in sight! You've completed your wiki's main content and tested its usability, so you're ready to distribute it company-wide. There are a few things to keep in mind when doing so.

First, be sure to check your access control and give everyone who needs access permissions. Once it's distributed, users should be able to give it a browse and start contributing right away.

You should also do the following when distributing your wiki:

  • Format your text and text boxes
  • Use clear, concise language
  • Integrate media, videos, and images
  • Create FAQs
  • Consult stakeholders and ask for their input

 

Step 9: Send reminders & updates

After you've launched your wiki, most of your colleagues will start as students. It will take them time to fully integrate your company wiki as part of their regular work habits. As such, it's important to set a good example and remind coworkers to consult the wiki to find information when they need it.

If someone requests information via email, Slack, or in-person, be sure to direct them to the wiki in order to get them into the habit of using it as a resource. If you notice that there's missing information in the wiki and you know one of your company's employees has the answer, be sure to ask them to click that edit button and fill the knowledge gap themselves.

Last, if you're making any changes to the wiki down the road, be sure to keep your coworkers in the loop.

What should I look for in wiki software?

Now that you're fully versed in what a wiki is, its advantages, and how to use it, you're probably ready to start looking for a wiki software so that you can start developing your own. There are many options out there when it comes to wiki software, so here's a breakdown of the features and tools you should be looking for. Not to toot our own horns, but Slite has everything mentioned on this list and more.

1. Simple editing

One of the most important qualities of a company wiki is that it's easy to use. That starts with your wiki markup or wiki syntax. Look for a software that has a straightforward, HTML, WYSIWYG rich text editor. A good benchmark is to determine whether it works as simply as commonly used word processing tools like Microsoft Word. It's just not practical to be dealing with complicated markup language and coding in wiki documentation.

You should also ensure that the software's rich text editor has a variety of formatting options.

2. A free trial period

When shopping for a wiki software, you'll be considering lots of different options. This gives software with free trials or free accounts a serious advantage. It allows you to explore their website, get to know their offerings, and familiarize yourself with their software without the commitment.

3. Real-time updates & changes

Company wikis are great because they keep all your important information organized, ready-to-consult, and safely stored. However, this means that different users could be accessing an article or wiki page and working on it at the same time.

Choose a wiki software that saves new work and updates in real-time, so users will always be seeing the most up-to-date information. You won't have to worry about new changes not syncing, and you'll always be able to use version control features to check out past edits if need be.

4. Great collaboration tools

Screenshot of a document being created collaboratively
Screenshot of a Slite document

An ideal wiki software should help your team work together better. That is, more productively, more effectively, and more enthusiastically. Whether your potential wiki users are remote, work from home, or see each other in the office, a great wiki will take their collaboration up a notch.

Slite makes it easy to work with your team online seamlessly with their notification, reminder, alert, and mention capabilities.

5. Plays well with others

If you're just beginning the development of a wiki database, you might already be using web tools and apps that your team loves. There's no need to get rid of systems and habits you're already comfortable with. Great software will have an array of integrations that are ready to connect as soon as you sign up for an account.

6. Compatible across different devices

A. truly effective wiki will be used and referred to constantly. As such, you'll want to make sure that you pick a software that's widely compatible. That is, it should work just as well on a desktop as it does on a mobile phone or a tablet. That way you can be sure that your team will be able to consult your company wiki on-the-go, wherever they may be.

Written by

Laure Albouy is Slite's first marketing hire and in charge of Product Marketing. Her role? Making sure our users get the most out of Slite -- including guides, product announcements, market research and more. Laure lives in Paris and is a pasta afficionada.