Tech Audit

A Wiki-Wiki Way to Work


Inveterate online researchers (also known as Web surfers) are likely to come across articles from something called Wiki­pedia. Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia, but has no staff of editors or authors. Instead, anyone who wants to contribute or edit an entry can do just that. Run by the Wikipedia Foundation, the group claims to have 310,000 articles in English and another 530,000 in other languages.

According to Wikipedia, a computer programmer named Ward Cunningham invented the concept of an interactive, collaborative Web site, establishing the first one in 1993. He called it wiki, from the term “wiki-wiki” (very quickly) in Hawaiian.

To many people, “interactive” plus “collaborative” sounds like anarchy, but the system works well. “My first reaction was, ‘Good Lord, any random individual can delete or change a post,’ ” says Rick Klau, a lawyer in Naperville, Ill. “But the beauty of it is that any random individual can fix it, too. In the end, it all works out.”

Klau now works for Social Text, a company that is trying to create a “wiki” kind of software system useful for lawyers and businesses as a collaborative tool. Klau says the venture is not trying to replace collaboration software like Microsoft’s NetMeeting, a popular tool for real-time videoconferencing and working together across the Internet. Instead, he believes wikis are an alternative to collaborating through e-mail, on which people send attachments back and forth, creating multiple versions of the same document.

“If you work in e-mail, in-boxes eventually fill up and messages get lost,” says Klau. “I think lawyers need a different environment to operate in.”

Social Text claims to have 60 customers, about four or five of which are legal customers, trying out the software. The system, which costs $1,000 for five users and $30 per month per additional user, is still brand new, so it’s not clear how well it’s being accepted. Free wikis can be found at Web sites like seedwiki.com.

The idea is that a wiki Web page can be an online white­board, a space where lawyers can go to review, edit and post comments on a project. Users can track changes made and have alerts sent to them via e-mail letting them know when others have made changes. Unlike most collaborative software, users don’t have to all log on at the same time, but can visit the Web page at their leisure and work on the project. Others can then come back whenever they like and review or make their own comments.

Not Always the Answer

As intriguing as the concept is, there are stories of wiki collaboration that didn’t work out. Tom Mighell, an attorney with Cowles & Thompson in Dallas, used the Social Text wiki to collaborate with other attorneys working in other states. They were trying to put together a Web site that would collect content from various online legal Web logs into one site. However, using a wiki didn’t work out for them, so they formed a Yahoo! group, then gave up on that and went back to com­municating by e-mail.

But Mighell says that if they had been collaborating on a contract or other document, the wiki might have been an effective tool. “I can see the utility. I think wikis are a potentially great collaboration and communication tool,” says Mighell. “It just didn’t make sense for our group.”

It’s too early to say whether wikis make sense for lawyers. It will probably make sense for lawyers who can’t afford expensive extranet software (which can cost tens of thousands of dollars just to start), but who need to collaborate on documents.

“It may seem strange at first, but the idea is really simple,” says Klau. “It’s a Web site, so all you or anyone you want to collaborate with needs is a Web browser, and away you go.”

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