The wikis I used in recent years have mainly of the open source and SharePoint varieties. Recently, I checked out Atlassian Confluence, an enterprise grade wiki collaboration platform.
Atlassian makes evaluating all of its products very easy. After setting up an account on Atlassian.com, I was able to download an evaluation version of Confluence Wiki to a Windows desktop test machine in my home office. The Windows installer that powers the install includes the backend database and the web server, and handles a variety of the more complex backend configuration tasks.
Atlassian Confluence includes many of the traditional features you’d expect to find in a wiki, including:
- Unlimited spaces: Confluence lets you create spaces (individual wikis) on an unlimited basis. This alone puts Confluence Wiki at the enterprise level vs. a wiki a project team might launch on spare hardware under a cubicle desk in a back office.
- Permissions: User and group permissions at the space level let departments and project teams secure their own wiki spaces.
- Blogs for each space: Blogs are an optional feature for each space.
- Page templates: Out of the box, Confluence lets you save pages you create as templates for future use. If you decide to implement Confluence, my advice is to spend time upfront to create standard templates for your wiki.
- Office Connector: The Office Connector powers Word document conversions. While the perfect Microsoft Word (or OpenOffice or LibreOffice for that matter) document conversion is one of the white whales of technical writing, the conversion process in Confluence works well.
Collaborating with Confluence
Confluence takes advantage of common social tools to foster team collaboration. For instance, each page includes a Share button. Click the Share button (Figure A) to bring the right team members into the page for discussion.
Sharing a page in Confluence (Click the image to enlarge.)
Team members can also Like and comment on pages. However, these aren’t useful features unless the organization behind the wiki promotes the value of engagement.
One other social tool that Confluence includes is blogs. While Confluence uses much the same editing tools to create blog posts, the published blog is easy to read and comment on. Figure B shows a test blog post.
Blog post on Confluence Wiki (Click the image to enlarge.)
There are also status updates (which are similar to Twitter and Yammer) that team members can use to update their status on project work.
One tool that wikis do right is enabling site users to follow pages via a Watch feature. With Confluence, you have the option to watch spaces or blog posts and receive an email notification when there is a change to the content you are watching.
Another feature I like is the option to create private workspaces where you can lock down a Confluence space to just your access. This feature could come in handy for staging wiki spaces before launching them on a user community. Private spaces allow you to learn more about the Confluence wiki tool hands on.
Editing a wiki page in Confluence
Atlassian gets a lot right when it comes to Confluence Wiki on the user side. I’ve seen more than one wiki implementation become cobwebs because the wiki markup language and tools were too difficult to use for the participants. Figure C shows a wiki page open in Confluence for editing.
Editing a page in Confluence Wiki (Click the image to enlarge.)
Editing a Confluence page doesn’t require any markup language knowledge, so project teams should have no issues distributing publishing and editing duties for wiki content, provided their administrator sets down the appropriate privileges. When editing a page you have the option to attach files or web links to it, which is helpful for project documents. You also have the option to write notes about the changes you made to the page and notify any watchers that the page has been edited.
Confluence has a Dashboard for users that sets out some easy getting started steps, and tabs to let you view favorite pages and tools to invite users to your Confluence space, add spaces, add pages, and blog posts. Figure D shows an example of the Confluence Dashboard.
Confluence Dashboard (Click the image to enlarge.)
The Dashboard is easy to use and isn’t going to take a complete wiki geek to make work. Likewise, the administrator tools are kept locked under administrator level access but are still easy to learn and use. Figure E shows an administrator level dashboard.
Administrator Dashboard (Click the image to enlarge.)
In such a crowded market, it’s refreshing to test a platform such as Confluence because it excels in the areas where I’ve seen wikis and other collaboration tools get wrong such as editing, document conversions, and administration. When clients and others ask me about wikis in the future, Confluence definitely makes the short list of wikis I’m going to mention to them.