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Wiki: Silly name, useful technology

Built for collaboration, ready to work.

Small Business Tech By James E. Gaskin, Network World
March 12, 2009 12:04 AM ET
James Gaskin

Network World - First appearing in 1995, the "wiki" approach to creating interactive and collaborative Web pages quickly became the star format for social networks, but too often business also-rans. Part of the problem comes from top-down managers uncomfortable with underlings making changes without authorization, and from stories of update wars on the most famous wiki, Wikipedia, the encyclopedia written by users. But successful corporate wikis abound, including SamePage from eTouch Systems.

Wiki is the Hawaiian word for fast, and wiki wiki is nonsensical, like saying “fast fast” or “run run.” The word sounds cute and friendly, another strike against the technology being accepted in the board room.

Yet what type of business is more serious and conservative than a boutique merchant banking firm, especially in today's financial climate. Meet Armen Grigorian, a manager at Defoe Fournier and Company, merchant bankers since 1824. They didn't have a wiki in 1824, but they have had one for more than two years, and Grigorian loves it.

“We needed a way for people to collaborate on projects. All our projects have at least six people involved,” said Grigorian. In a company of a dozen people, half the employees work together on each project. The problem is, those employees are scattered around, between headquarters in New York City, Atlanta, Rochester, Pittsburgh, and even Armenia.

Grigorian continues with a description that sounds like most small businesses. “There's no real IT department or money to develop a custom application. We rely on typical tools for small businesses, like Excel and Word from Microsoft. We're all finance and accounting people who can just barely use a computer.”

Defoe Fournier needs to keep all their working documents per project in a central place where everyone can get to them from anywhere, securely. SamePage makes it easy for Grigorian and his coworkers to organize their documents per project, keep track of documents as they change, and store files for finished projects so they're out of the way yet still easily accessible.

“When we start a new project, I assign someone to start it, and I allocate the jobs and access to the project files,” said Grigorian. “We have pages for each project with discussions and notes. Sometimes we have live discussions by invitation, or people can comment later.”

SamePage provides access control features so you can allow or deny access to anything for anyone. This function, called ACL or Access Control List, has been the basis for secure access to files on shared servers since the early 1980s. File servers and network-attached storage devices still work the same way. Grigorian occasionally lets partners get limited access, but not customers.

The key for wiki success in general and SamePage in particular for Grigorian is that the technology disappears when you get to work. Too often we must actively fight technology to get our work done. Most small business people prefer transcending technology when working and focusing on the problem at hand, such as expanding spreadsheets or growing documents. Grigorian says three or four people are logged in to their SamePage pages every moment of the workday.

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