Opening Up
Some European firms let employees edit Intranets
By Rhea Wessel

Oct 24, 2005

THE WORLD WIDE Web originally was designed to be an environment where people could exchange ideas, but most people use it in read-only mode, the same mode employees use when sampling their company’s Intranet. Dick Stenmark, a senior lecturer in the informatics department of Göteborg University, thinks many employees would share information more readily if given the chance in an easy, user-friendly way.

In a study released earlier this year, Mr. Stenmark concluded that removing read-only limitations from corporate Intranets, essentially turning static bulletin boards into online forums, can increase the flow of information within a company, helping people share knowledge.

Mr. Stenmark and his team tested the so-called wiki principle on corporate Intranets and examined the effects of allowing Secretary A and Manager B to augment, change or revise a company’s Intranet at will. The wiki principle is based on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia written by an army of volunteers. It was founded on the premise that everybody has knowledge to share with others.

For many firms that have opened their Intranets to editing by employees, the wiki principle has created an overwhelmingly positive experience: The amount of information available has increased, employees are communicating and coordinating more readily, and mistakes—from punctuation and broken links to content errors—are corrected regularly.

“When editing becomes as easy as surfing, people who want to share knowledge can indeed do so on a corporate Intranet,” says Mr. Stenmark.

Wikis have long been used by companies to create virtual project workspaces and help employees work together better from remote locations and in different time zones. Think of this use as the virtual water cooler for select team members. Project members log on, read timelines and notes and post their own comments to such sites. Wiki-style corporate Intranets, on the other hand, are a whole different ballgame. If wiki-workspaces are virtual water coolers, then wiki-Intranets are virtual annual meetings. Anyone who has access to a company’s Intranet would be free to grab the microphone (or keyboard) and weigh in on the proceedings.

Fears of losing control of critical information may be keeping many managers from taking wikis one step further than dedicated project spaces and using them to open the Intranet.

“In the mid-1990s, many managers focused on the potential dangers rather than the opportunities of editing software,” says Mr. Stenmark. “I don’t think any managers actually sat down and calculated the risks. They tacitly assumed that Intranets had to be implemented like mainframe and email systems— very much from the top down.”

Despite the perceived risks, some companies are plowing ahead. A Nordic call center that has been allowing key employees to edit databases of information about clients’ products and procedures says it has not had a single discipline case in the two years that the software has been installed. A Belgian Internet Service Provider that took the lid off its Intranet for all 30 employees has seen the content on its database increase by 50% since it began the project one year ago. And a U.K. software developer says its wiki-style software has become an integral part of the way the company works.

“From the reception, to the sales team,to the developers, everyone is involved with this, and that’s the key to its success,” says John Cieslik-Bridgen, vice president, customer operations and support, for Orbis Technology, a subsidiary of NDS Group PLC and a maker of interactive gambling software based in London.

For companies considering the wiki principle, qualms about employee misbehavior or vandalism can be swept aside by the obvious fact that most people are on better behavior at work than at home because they want to keep their jobs.

Mr. Cieslik-Bridgen concedes that his company had some concerns when it implemented a wiki-based software called TWiki in 2003 for its 120 employees. Managers wondered how the self-regulating nature of the system would work.Orbis now says that the more people who use the open-edit Intranet the more value the company gets from it. “We trust people to have full access, and they reward the company with their trust,” he says.

Just in case that trust ever broke down, the software retains a repository of changes, and a network administrator could easily roll back edited pages.

Belnet, a Belgian ISP based in Brussels that is dedicated to university and research users, simply downloaded wiki software from the Web free of charge. Belnet replaced its static Intranet with a wiki-Intranet and employees began to use it after a 30-minute explanation. “The net result is that there is a lot more information and documentation available than before,” says Vera Gustav, a company spokeswoman. “There are no obstacles to keeping your things up to date. On the Intranet, lots of documents were old because the responsible person didn’t know how to update them or forgot about it.”

Belnet issued limited guidelines about the wikito keep the structure consistent. Technical staffers are to post their documents in a certain space, while financial staffers do the same in another.

Excellent Intressenter AB, a Danderyd, Sweden-based call-center and outsourcing company, allows some 30 people to change information via its Altova Authentic editing application made by Altova Inc.

Ester Gustavsson, a customer coordinator, says one of her team members recently went to extra trouble to get some information for a caller. The caller wanted to buy a trailer from a hardware company. The agent called the hardware company to find out how the trailer was supposed to be registered with the government and then passed on this information to the caller.

In the past, these helpful details might have been shared only by word-of-mouth with a few employees in the agent’s direct vicinity. Now, the company has a procedure for handling it. The agent clicks on a link that pulls up a template email with the basic information and addresses it to Ms. Gustavsson, her manager. Ms. Gustavsson updates the Intranet and posts a news item about the change.

“The agents have so much information all the time. If they didn’t have a direct link to me in this way, the information would probably just get lost,” says Ms. Gustavsson. “We emphasize that everybody is responsible for having the updated information. It’s not just the person in charge.”

Times have changed for Ms. Gustavsson, who joined Excellent as a call agent three years ago. When she started, she had to locate relevant Word documents on file servers and hope her colleagues hadn’t left them open, denying her access. Occasionally, she put callers on hold, left her desk, walked to the library, found information in written form and then reported back to the caller.

“This system has helped immensely on call time and in cases when an agent doesn’t have all the information in his or her memory,” says Karsten Hojgaard, a system engineer. “Search time has dropped by 50%.”