Embrace the Wiki: New collaboration tools lead to a business edge

Guest column

Mention of Web 2.0 often elicits bewilderment, mild aversion or downright confusion. Social-networking tools and technologies - wikis, blogs, online forums and the like - have become widespread, but not yet in government or the federal contracting industry, where they prompt adoption anxiety.

Are they fads or legitimate business tools? Will they provoke lawsuits? Will they throw security overboard? Will they make our information technology space look like the worst swamps of the blogosphere?

The short answer to those anxiety-laden questions is a qualified no. Such fears stem primarily from unfamiliarity. Is an internal blog inherently less secure than e-mail, or even worse, instant messaging? Are offensive and possibly actionable remarks more likely to be made in a wiki than a meeting? No. So let's table the anxieties for a moment.

Instead, let's start by saying there are some compelling reasons to work through the anxiety. Adjusting to a highly collaborative framework will help transition to the new responsibility-to-provide mind-set that Mike McConnell, director of National Intelligence, suggests ought to be the successor to the need-to-know culture most of us grew up in. And because information security has been advancing alongside IT, we can reap the benefits of the Web 2.0 interactive technologies without tossing out security.

This new Web 2.0 business mind-set - everyone in an organization has a responsibility to make individual knowledge available to everyone else - is the whole point of social-networking and collaboration technologies. This responsibility is what early adopters of Web 2.0 call peer production. Peer production shares information better, faster and more effectively than primitive hunt-and-gather management techniques that evolved in the '80s and '90s. Individuals who are encouraged to generate and comment on content share their knowledge readily. Information silos disappear, and the knowledge base becomes a widely distributed tool instead of an elusive ideal.

Information sharing.

Peer production offers the best strategy for gathering, using and reusing information. Web 2.0 can reverse the direction of traditional information seeking. Instead of responding to information requests from across an enterprise, workers who have expertise contribute it to the knowledge base - and the structure of the base makes it easily accessible. A knowledge-sharing culture sustained through peer production can eliminate short-fused, and inevitably imperfectly framed, data calls and information searches. And you might even be surprised by what some in your organization know. In a competitive and fluid labor market, you have to take advantage of your organization's best ideas and processes, no matter where they originate.

New efficiencies.

When you put an organization's knowledge base into a searchable platform, you save time that is otherwise wasted in searches and data calls. Time saved translates directly into money saved. With the need for face-to-face meetings and responses to information requests reduced, experts can focus on their programs or products. Wikis and forums provide continuous information collection, so workers can contribute when and where they're needed. When key program information is captured and shared, the program benefits. Moreover, the program team can collaborate on solutions and projects, bringing the total knowledge of the enterprise to every endeavor. New contributors and team members have an easily accessible body of knowledge that can inform them faster than ever. Reports and metrics become visible organizationwide improving quality assurance.

When people see themselves as part of a team, they are more likely to feel important and valued - and to remain on that team. Web 2.0 collaboration fosters enterprisewide team building and can be a key retention component for federal contractors.

That applies also to relationships among prime contractors, subcontractors and customers. Web 2.0 lets primes, subs and customers collaborate on big projects with unprecedented immediacy and flexibility. Web 2.0 technologies work just as well between organizations as within them: The tools effectively overcome the geographic and contractual distances between enterprises that often keep teammates from operating at full effectiveness.

Web 2.0 can help everyone fulfill the organization's responsibility to provide information because such tools get the needed information into the hands of the appropriate people with the least resistance and effort. Adopted from the top down and with incentives for those who fulfill their responsibility to provide the data, these tools have the potential to improve information sharing, efficiency of time and costs, program management, team building and teaming relationships. Do you need another reason to embrace the wiki?

Doug Chabot is director of strategic initiatives at QinetiQ North America.

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