- Sep 10, 2008
Wikis for Knowledge Engineering, and in Global Businesses
Sorry for still writing about last week, but the TRIPLE-I conference had far too many interesting topics to offer for me to be already through with them – promise, this blog post about wikis will be the last TRIPLE-I post.
An interesting use of wikis was introduced with the Moki plugin for Semantic Media Wiki, developed as a side product of the APOSDLE project. APOSDLE (EU-project leaders love their acronyms;-) aims to develop an Advanced Process-Oriented Self-Directed Learning Environment, which in plain language is a platform to support the process of learning at work. In the course of this project, a model of the enterprise knowledge had to be developed that was to be the collaborative result of domain experts within the enterprise and external knowledge engineers. The APOSDLE image video below conveys a sense of the complexity of the knowledge to be represented.
But on to Moki: As wikis are an ideal, readily available tool for collaboration, the simple solution was to build a plugin (Moki) for Semantic Media Wiki that allow to structure and engineer the domain knowledge. Moki is a hierarchy builder that supports drag and drop so that categories and relations can easily be fitted in place – the special benefit of using Semantic Media Wiki was that the structure of the generated knowledge can be exported in Semantic Web compliant formats. Apart from the browser, no further software is required.
The APOSDLE website doesn’t yet offer any information about Moki, but a description can be found in the conference proceedings: Collaborative Knowledge Engineering via Semantic MediaWiki, by Chiara Ghidini, Marco Rospocher (who gave the presentation), Luciano Serafini, Viktoria Pammer, Barbara Kump, Andreas Faatz, Andreas Zinnen, Joanna Guss, Stefanie Lindstaedt.
For those looking for good arguments for setting up a wiki in a global business environment: Peter Kemper‘s keynote was the perfect primer for that. Peter, a Knowledge Management portfolio manager at Shell’s IT-Department, gave some insights into the process of their conversion to wikis. Before there were wikis at Shell, they had global discussion forums, connecting 20,000 people around topics and questions, which were intensively used – the question whether wikis should be adopted or not alone generated 800 responses in these forums.
Instead of going for team wikis, Shell opted for the encyclopedic approach and a wiki that would be accessible to anyone at Shell, and for using MediaWiki – which was, interestingly, the first open source software ever used at Shell. Peter Kemper named scalability and the lean architecture as prime arguments for MediaWiki, and they have indeed not had any technical hiccups so far. It was also an asset that people, being used to Wikipedia, know how to use the MediaWiki interface.
Examples of uses case with which the feasibility of wikis within Shell were tested were: Drilling salt, Geology of the Atlantic Margin, and Production Chemistry. Before that, the main media for maintaining and passing on knowledge had been emails and Powerpoint – not exactly because these were considered appropriate for knowledge management, but because of the effects these media had had on the communication within Shell:
With the advent of email, People wrote less and less memos. Less and less reports were sent to the archive, because people kept powerpoint presentations. If that same information, previously locked in emails and powerpoint, went now into wiki, it would finally be accessible to everyone in the company.
Peter Kemper allowed us a glimpse of the information their wiki held, for instance, about the Atlantic Margin – as geological structures are described, most of the information relies on images. It would be a nightmare to maintain this kind of information in Powerpoint! No offense meant: Powerpoint is good for presentations but not for creating and maintaining a knowledge base. According to Peter, with wikis Shell achieved six times the productivity in comparison to using Powerpoint, in particular due to the linkability of content.
Wikis also turned out to be the superior solution for the integration of curricula from an internal learning environment, as wikis support the modular structure of a learning curriculum. Furthermore, they are also a good means to sustain communication in the time between workshops or team meetings.
At shell, they even use wiki for instance for the translation of contracts into the requirements of day to day procedures – a typical contract in the business that Shell is in has around 400 pages, and it is probably not very likely that a single person is going to read (and immediately understand) the entire contract. In this regard, the wiki also serves as a tool to translate lawyer-readable prose into transparent instructions (and there are probably many more ways in which wikis can be used to support business processes, a statement also put forward by Rolf Sint from Salzburg Research; see his 12 seconds statement below).
A noteworthy detail about the integration of wikis in Shell’s IT architecture: If a user logs onto the wiki for the first time and goes beyond the disclaimer, a new wiki account is automatically created that is identical with his or her windows account – this is not about checking on people, Peter Kemper said, but about creating organisational transparency.
On the one hand, this reveals whether there are organisational units within Shell where the wiki is not as intensively used as elsewhere, meaning that these units probably have specific needs which need to be addressed first. On the other hand, people can (and do) also contact each other via the wiki, e.g. one can contact the person who created an article if one is on need of further information.
About stimulating content production: 60% of Shell’s employees will go into retirement over the next eight years, and with them knowledge that is needed in the company. They even asked and paid former employees to come out of retirement to work on the wiki – that’s what I call commitment to content creation and knowledge preservation.
The Shell wiki already has more than 40,000 registered users (with 150,000 employees in the company, plus contract staff). What is interesting regarding user activation is that the number of active users stays relatively the same, even if the number of users in total increases. Peter Kemper’s account for this was that content comes in waves, meaning that users are activated in those areas where fresh knowledge is generated.
Kemper distinguished three types of users: content owners who create content from scratch; content editors who often just correct syntax or make things ‘look nicer’; and information consumers. Kemper rejected the term ‘lurkers’ for information consumers as looking for information is an activity in itself.
All in all, Peter Kemper’s talk confirmed many of the assumptions which have informed our own KiWi – Knowledge in a Wiki project, the aim of which is to merge the wiki philosophy with knowledge management, enhanced by semantic (web) technologies. Sebastian Schaffert (Salzburg Research) puts it in a nutshell in the video below. Featured in a cameo appearance: the KiWI!