Why Wikipedia is a bad example of knowledge management

Nowadays, most peoples first contact with a wiki is through Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a great resource, but I think it’s a bad example of using a wiki for knowledge management. The limitation of Wikipedia is that it aims to be purely a repository of existing knowledge. Wikipedia policies require that content on the site is written from a neutral point of view, is verifiable and contains no original research: even going so far as to ban synthesis of other sources. Although reasonable in an encyclopaedia, these restrictions give the wrong idea about how wikis can be used for knowledge management. They encourage the idea that wikis are for knowledge capture, rather than knowledge creation, and that their main purpose is to produce a good knowledge store.

This bias extends to commercial wiki vendors, too. Wiki vendor MindTouch describes their wiki as making “knowledge easier to capture, find and consume” (thanks to Zoli’s Blog for the link), and Atlassian describe their wiki Confluence as “lowering the barriers to knowledge capture“.

However, there are other wikis than Wikipedia, and the original Wiki was designed for knowledge creation. The Portland Pattern Repository (also called the WikiWiki, or Ward’s Wiki) was the first Wiki, created by Ward Cunningham in 1995. Although technically simple, the Wiki’s brilliance was in its design: It facilitated asynchronous conversations between distributed contributors, enabling a dialogue across time and space. At its best, these conversations led to new insights, that were then formalised into documents.

The WikiWiki was originally focused around design patterns, but by the time I first encountered it in 1997, it was starting to be focussed around Extreme Programming, and since then has drifted into other topics without a clear focus. Some of the most interesting pages on it are the longest established ones: I particularly like the patterns pages, and the proto patterns.

At 67 Bricks, we’re using Semantic MediaWiki to help us create new knowledge, as well as to store our existing knowledge. I’ll write more about it in a future blog entry.

Setting up a website using WordPress

I’ve set the 67 Bricks website up using WordPress as a content management system. Previously, I’ve used either simple static HTML pages, or a traditional, full-featured CMS. I decided to use WordPress here because it is easy to use, and has an ecology of templates written for it making site design much simpler. It also describes itself as a “Semantic Publishing Platform”, and for a knowledge-management company such as our own, semantic publishing is important.

Setting up WordPress requires very little technical knowledge: my ISP, Heart Internet allows you to do it with a few clicks in their script library, but even without that, it’s still simple. The changes that I’ve made to make it work as a CMS are:

  • Installing the Navigo plugin: which makes it easy to create a menu
  • Installing Search Everything: so pages can be searched as well as posts
  • Installing WP Last Posts: to put the text of the last few posts on the home page

Then, I created the bulk of the site using WordPress “pages”, and the news items as “posts”. I set the front page to be a static page under the Options | Reading menu.

To create a design for the site, I looked through the library of templates on the WordPress site, downloaded four or five that looked interesting, and tried them out locally. Having found a template with a good layout, clean HTML code, and a reasonable license, I then customized it to remove the sections I didn’t like, and to change the graphics – a much simpler process than building a web site design from scratch.

That’s really all there is to it.

So, what did I learn?

Setting up a website with WordPress is very quick. Installation of WordPress took a few minutes, installing plugins took maybe quarter of an hour, choosing and customizing a theme about an hour, and the rest of the time was spent creating content.

The WordPress way of separating content from presentation using PHP functions works well. This is more powerful than the pure CSS approach of CSS Zen Garden, since it allows different templates to display different content. An alternative would be to use XQuery: which would probably be more versatile, but the PHP developer community hasn’t had a wide take-up of XQuery and seems generally sceptical of XML.

(thanks to twenty3design for help with choosing WordPress plugins)