Ten reasons to use a wiki for documentation

I’ve been very impressed by how useful the wiki has been in real world use: here are the reasons that have made the wiki very successful for us.

Thought Wikipedia was the only wiki? Think again! A wiki can be a great help in keeping all your documentation up-to-date and easily accessible. In this article I’ll explain why you should give a wiki a try.

For a couple of years now, I’ve been working with a FTSE 100 company that uses wiki software for keeping its internal IT documentation. This includes notes relating to development, testing, and how the various IT systems and business concepts work.

I’ve been very impressed by how useful the wiki has been in real world use, so I thought I’d share the reasons that have made the wiki very successful for us (and for me in particular, as a documentation author as well as a reader).

As knowledge management becomes ever more important, most companies should give serious consideration to using wiki software, not just within IT departments but in the wider business.

The wiki software I’ve been using is Atlassian Confluence, but no doubt using other wiki software will realise some if not all of these benefits.

So in no particular order, the benefits that I’ve personally found with using a wiki for documentation are:

1. Easy to find information

A wiki puts information is all in one place and is fully searchable.

With hundreds of topics, potentially written by hundreds of users, it’s easy to end up with a labyrinthine folder structure of Word documents that sit gathering virtual dust because nobody can find them. For example, I had been working with the company for about 8 months before somebody pointed me to some useful documentation that I could have used right from my first day with them!

A searchable wiki makes it quick to home in on exactly the information you require.

2. Easy to tell how up-to-date a document is

I recently read a corporate document, that’s still being issued, that discussed upcoming changes for 2005 – it’s now 2014 as I write this!

A wiki breaks a large topic into a series of sections, one per page, and with automatic date tracking for when each section was last updated you can easily say how up-to-date or out-of-date each individual section is.

If you read a sentence in the documentation similar to “John recently did some work on the payment system”, which is bad because it isn’t specific, you can at least roughly narrow down when this time period might have been. In a Word document that was started 10 years ago and periodically updated, you would have no idea as to even which year it might have been!

Since out-of-date documentation cannot be trusted, and might be either wrong or actively misleading, being able to tell the precise age of the documentation you are reading greatly helps with understanding how much or how little you can trust the documentation.

3. Easy to update, so gets updated more often

Updating the documentation is as simple as clicking the bookmark in your web browser to get to the wiki and making a few changes. There’s no need to fiddle around with version control or re-issuing documentation.

It’s also easy to do a very small change here and there, when you have time, and then build up the documentation over a period of time. I have wiki pages that I update probably once a week as I learn a new snippet of information. This contrasts with the approach of writing documentation into Word documents, where it feels more like you have to write a whole manual or definitive piece of documentation all in one go and then more formally distribute it.

So because wiki documentation is so easy to update, it tends to be more up to date.

4. Easy version control and roll back

A wiki lets you easily go back to a previous version of a page. You can take a more active approach to updating documentation, because you know you can never really break it, and can always roll back if you put the wrong thing in the wrong place.

5. No need for a single document owner

There are no bottlenecks centred around individual people for writing documentation or putting together everyone’s contributions. If you’re reading or reviewing documentation, and you know that something is wrong or out of date, you can update it immediately, without asking permission, and without waiting for somebody else. This helps to keep documentation up to date.

6. See who wrote what

Depending on who wrote the documentation (and your assessment of their competence!), you know more about the likely quality of the documentation, and exactly who to speak to if you have questions about it.

7. Links within the documentation to help users navigate

Being able to easily add links to other relevant sections of the documentation means it’s easier to guide readers to the precise areas of the documentation they will find more useful, and easier to make sure that the reader doesn’t miss other important topics related to the section they are currently reading.

8. See a list of recent edits to know who has been working on what

Atlassian Confluence has a dashboard view showing who has been editing what. It’s like a running commentary showing all the changes that have been made. It makes it easier to see who is working on what areas of the documentation.

9. Notification of changes

It’s easy to set up notifications for sections of the documentation that you are interested in, and then be told when those sections are updated. This way you can be made instantly aware of when important information might have changed.

10. Easy team collaboration for fast-moving information

For sections of the document relating to project status, or what will be released in an upcoming software release, where several authors may all be making changes in the same day, the wiki environment makes it very easy to make and share these changes.

When NOT to use a wiki

There are some downsides to using a wiki, largely relating to making sure that information is kept secure, but any documentation written down can theoretically be disclosed outside the company anyway, so this isn’t an issue solely related to wikis. Wikis can restrict access to certain pages to certain users anyway.

Wikis can tend to be quite free-form, with different authors doing things in different ways, so sometimes you need to try and impose a bit of structure.

If you need full distribution and approval controls, perhaps when issuing documents to third parties, then you might want to consider a fully-fledged Document Management System, but they are quite heavyweight and expensive, and you’re unlikely to really need it.

Conclusion

I’ve found that using a wiki for documentation brings the documentation to life. It’s no longer an old, stale and outdated document that gets written once and then forgotten about, never updated and never read. It keeps the information up to date, prominent, and searchable. I’ve been very impressed with using a wiki, so I recommend that you give it a try.

Action Points

If you want free wiki software then consider MediaWiki, which is what Wikipedia runs on. If you’d prefer a hosted wiki that you can get started with immediately, there are a variety of free and paid services.

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