Review: Wikipatterns by Stewart Mader

Information architecture, or how we structure data, intrigues me. When I am online, I love using my RSS feeds to keep me up-to-date with all the blogs and sites that interest me; I love looking at websites and their navigation structures (it shows me how each person uses the web and web tools to organize their interests); and I love collaboration tools. Tools like wikis, that help disseminate and organize information in organic systems.

Wikipatterns, by Stewart Mader, gives readers a guide to using and implementing wikis in their organization. This is a book for non-techies, as it tells you how to use a wiki with your projects, rather than how to install or extend the wiki software with plug-ins. This slim book starts out by offering what a wiki is and what it can offer your project. It then takes the reader through championing and implementing a new wiki. It also covers tips and tricks on getting people to quickly use your wiki and how to avoid or minimize obstacles that could tear down your wiki usage.

What I liked
Mader starts out strong with his introduction on wikis. By the time you are done reading this material, you will be able to articulate what a wiki is and how to use it. You'll understand how a wiki differs from other content management systems like a knowledge base or blogging software package. You will know that a wiki works best when there's less structure, and that having less structure and control lends a wiki the power to work and adapt to any organization's structure and methodologies. You'll be able to use all these bits of information to get the rest of your team, department or company to buy into the benefits of what a wiki can do for you.

I also liked Mader's 11 point system on wiki implementation. This is your road map: the things you need to think about and the steps you need to take to get your wiki up and going and usable for your project. He starts out by having you set time goals for the wiki and picking the right project and team. He offers a few tips to working with the wiki by keeping it small, how to keep excitement up, and setting some ground rules for using the wiki. Finally, he builds in the notion of personalization, extendability and long term support for the wiki. Each point gives you enough flexibility to incorporate it into your own project. Mader's writing style is straight forward, simple, and easy to understand. He says exactly what he needs to say about each point and then moves on.

Wikipatterns includes a wide variety of case studies. These companion chapters come in between the instructional chapters and help show real-life examples of what other companies have done to get their wikis in production settings. He's got interviews with big name software companies like Sun Microsystems, and small software companies. He also includes a few educational institutions, who use wikis in the classroom. It was nice to see such a wide variety of case studies, because it shows how a wiki can be applied to just about any project or discipline setting.

What I don't like
I'm reading Wikipatterns from the angle that the book gives me everything I need to know in order to implement a wiki for my organization. However, there were several times in the book where I felt it was more of a companion to the website, a community website that delves into uncovering helpful and hindering use patterns for wikis.

In each of the case study chapters, Mader asks the company he's interviewing to identify helpful and hindering wiki patterns that each encountered while working on their own wiki implementation. This is great to include in a case study, because it suggests things others should do or stay away from when they implement their own projects. However, without some basic understanding and definitions of what these patterns are, do, and mean to you then the book looses some meaning. In this case, you'd have to put the book down and go to the website to look up the names of each wikipattern. And hours later, you may or may not pick the book up because you've been lost once again to the internet. Mader just name-drops these terms, such as "WikiZenMaster" or "ThreadMode", which left me feeling like it took away from the book's true purpose of being "a practical guide to improving productivity and collaboration in your organization."

The other downfall of this book is that it focuses a bit too much on the enterprise wiki software. More specifically Atlassian Software Systems, makers of the Confluence brand of wiki. Mader comes right out in the beginning of the book to state that he is Atlassian's Wiki Evangelist and that it's his job to spread the word of wiki far and wide. I don't mind that, I am glad he took the route to tell the audience that his work and personal life blend together. The problem I have with this is that many of the case studies state they used an "enterprise wiki" to get the job done, without stating what package they went with. Out of all the case studies in the book, only one specified they used a "free consumer-oriented hosted wiki service." This left me thinking that all enterprises use Confluence (even if this is not the case). It would have been nice to see a comparison of what the open source/free wiki packages (such as Media Wiki or PBWiki) can offer a project and how they contrast to their enterprise package counterparts.

Bottom Line
This is a good book for beginners wanting more information on wikis. It guides you through what a wiki is to implementing one in any organization. I also like its solid guidelines on integrating wikis in any business organization. If you've been wanting to give wikis a shot and don't know how to begin or already know what a wiki is but cannot get your coworkers or your organization to buy in then this is the book for you. Wikipatterns costs $29.99 (a bit steep for a book that's only 153 pages, not including the index) and is published by Wiley.

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