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Blogs vs. wikis: Which is best for internal government use?

Blogs are a very hot trend right now, and everyone likes to have the latest technology, but are blogs good communication tools for government organizations? Ramon Padilla compares blogs and wikis and tells you which one gets his vote for use in the government enterprise.

I just finished reading another article which asserts that blogs are the next hot corporate communication tool, but frankly, I am pretty lukewarm to the idea of them catching on as a government tool. Some companies have decided that these personal information distribution systems are a good thing and have created both internal (IBM) and external (Sun Microsystems) blogs for their employees to participate in. In regards to external facing systems, employees are given rules and boundaries to go by, but by and large their blogs go uncensored. Internal blogs operate in much the same way, however it is "implied" that what is posted there stays inside the company.

I hate being a naysayer to new technology, but I see both internal and external blogs as being more trouble than they are worth for widespread use in a government setting. However, I do think they can be valuable tools for specialized instances (such as the IT department creating a security alert blog on the intranet or providing blogs for elected officials to communicate with their constituents). With all the trouble that government agencies go to making sure they "speak with one voice," it doesn't take much imagination to see the havoc that could be wreaked from an outspoken government employee who argues against current policy on the official blog.


Blogging

Just in case you need a refresher—a blog is basically a journal or diary that is kept on a Web site for people to view and comment on—but not change. These days, you can sign up for the service through a Web site (such as Google: http://www.blogger.com/start) and do not have to go through the hassle of setting one up to host yourself.


Conversely, giving government employees a bully pulpit on the intranet would probably result in a negative cost-benefit analysis. With there being restrictions on the private use of government equipment, HR rules, and the fact that anything written in an internal blog is subject to open records, do we really want to open that can of worms? It's not as though there's a shortage in ways to communicate; we have e-mail, instant messaging, and groupware tools, just to name a few. Do we really need another electronic means to share our opinions?

Wiki: It's not a character from Star Wars

The technology that I believe has greater potential in the government enterprise is the wiki. What's a wiki? Let me grab the definition from the most popular Wiki in the world and one that you probably have heard of—Wikipedia:
"A Wiki or wiki is a web application that allows users to add content, as on an Internet forum, but also allows anyone to edit the content….A wiki enables documents to be written collectively in a simple markup language using a web browser."

The wiki is a nice enhancement to intranet capabilities, offering collaboration functionality for a relatively low cost. Twiki is an open source, structured wiki that has been adopted by several large corporations including Motorola, SAP, Yahoo, and Disney to name a few. There are other wikis as well such as JotSpot, Socialtext, and GroveSite.

What are the advantages of a wiki, compared to the standard intranet Web page? No wikis are identical; however, most share these attributes in common:

  • Easier to use: Editing pages, linking pages, and formatting text are much easier to do than through standard HTML. Additionally, FTP is not required to upload pages.
  • Easier to manage: Revision control is inherent in a wiki and all changes are tracked. All text is searchable, and the content in a wiki is easily structured.
  • Can be full featured: Depending on the brand of tool you are using, you can fairly easily add features to your wiki through plug-ins that would be more difficult to do programmatically via a standard intranet site, such as database access, file uploading and downloading, adding WYSIWYG functionality, etc.

Besides hosting an online encyclopedia, you can use wikis for:

  • Help desk tools
  • A place to host FAQs, standards, or meeting minutes
  • Knowledge bases
  • Project collaboration aids

The disadvantage of a wiki is that everyone can contribute, which means less control over the content; however, some wikis, such as Twiki, are more structured and include fine-grained permissions, so that control is less of a problem.

Another thing to keep in mind is the issue of support. Depending on where you obtain your wiki software, you may be left depending on an open source community or a small company for support. Many of the wiki tools out there will require someone in your shop to be familiar with Perl, Java/JavaScript, and Linux/UNIX. There are a few Windows-based wikis, but there seem to be more Linux-based ones available.

To summarize, while I think that blogging is not the best means of communication for government organizations, an internal wiki is a low-cost, very useful tool that every IT shop should consider adding to the environment.

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