Monday, September 03, 2007

Milieukontakt International’s wikis reduce work chaos

I interviewed Chris van de Sanden (in the picture) by Skype about Milieukontakt’s use of wikis and how the use of wikis support their work.

A colleague of Chris, Jacobien Ritsema worked with Riny Heijdendael to introduce wikis in the organisation in November 2005, and right now Chris can hardly recall how he used to organize his work before there were wikis in his life… Milieukontakt uses wikis for internal communication, but also started to use it with partners in Central and Eastern Europe. The first wikis were doku wikis and were used to develop project proposals collaboratively with a few colleagues; to take notes during meetings and to share notes. Recently, partners in 12 countries in Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans have been introduced to a doku wiki about about organizing support activities in their own countries in order to prepare a conference that will take place in Belgrado in October this year. The wiki incorporated an integrated chat, where basic discussions took place on how the guidelines should be. After this online conference, the partners continued their work on the wiki, where they wrote down their concerns and input in preparation of the Belgrade conference. You can see a screenshot of a wiki here:
Milieukontakt has used this video of Commoncraft to introduce the advantages of wikis, and so far the partners have reacted very enthusiastically to the use of the wiki. In comparison with the regular “open” character of public wiki’s this platform is restricted to the about 480 members. To see the video they used, click here:

The introduction of the wiki
I am not an early-adopter” stresses Chris, “I first resisted the use of new tools as doing my job is my first concern”, which in his case includes a lot of training and project proposal writing. Learning about new tools takes time, which is time away from your core job.

So how did Chris as a non-early adopter get convinced of the advantages of using a wiki? He learned about it through his colleague, and it helped that the director was involved in the wiki-initiatives. Notes of meetings were shared through the wiki. But Chris got really convinced when he realized that there is a lot to be gained from working through a wiki. First working jointly on project proposals through a wiki is made easy because all have access to add or change text and you always know what the latest version is. And from the beginning it was fun and special to work with the wikispace, having access through a password. He realized that it is ideal for gathering training materials. Before having a wiki, it could happen that you realized after conducting a training that a colleague had developed a similar training. With the wikis, it is much easier to know what training materials already exist. In getting used to working with the Wiki it also helped Chris to have someone nearby to answer his practical questions. Being referred to a manual doesn’t work for him.

Wikis stimulate more equal, creative ways of working together
Chris has the impression that working with wikis has had a large influence in changing the way people collaborate. The dynamics of collaboration change, working together becomes flatter, more democratic and more creative, and working through wikis seems to really contribute towards that change. For instance: ‘we had a new member from Moldova in the international training group. She introduced herself in the who-is-who part of the wiki, she had direct access to all materials that were developed so far and could start immediately contributing to the training materials.

Downside of working through wikis
The downside of our current way of working is that we have become very dependent on the computer. In fact, you always need a plan B. Once our IT staff took down our internet connection on a Friday, which really disrupted our work.

Things being worked on by Milieukontakt

  • Notification service: if you write a proposal for example, it would be nice to send an invitation by email to your country/thematic group for their input.
  • Integration with georeferenced data: We are building a system that connects the wiki with geographical data: in this way you can quickly see who is working on what themes in your own region, discuss plans and monitor progress.
  • Improving navigation: next step will be that menus will be dependent on which groups you are member of
  • Increase possibilities to convert HTML/Excel/Word documents on the fly.
  • Make a set of default formats available, so that postprocessing content to printed versions will be easier.

Things to consider while working with wikis:

  • Since there is complete freedom to structure your work, it can quickly grow out of hand. Make sure that the basic structure is discussed before.
  • Moving complete parts into an archive for example can be tedious work: try to organize your content in such a way that time-referencing is possible
  • Make sure every user has a personal page, and presents himself on a Who is Who page. This is an excellent training for new members.
  • Find one or two early adopters in each section: nothing is more frightening then talking in an empty space.
  • Let users use their own language. If you are curious, get a translation service.
  • Introduce some funny things: for example we have a list of “secret” words that will include pictures in the text, get RSS feeds on a page, start a chat etc. For example : DOGME includes a jumping dog picture in your text.
  • See if you can make meaningful statistics: what is hot, who writes the most etc.