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The wiki way

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Need a user manual to help turn your company into a machine? Why not set up a wiki, to give several people ownership of the manual and ensure it remains up to date?

I have a mental image of a large long brass tube, covered with lots of dials, hand wheels and little valves that spurt steam. That’s the business I am building.

Not the Churchill Club particularly, but any business I have ever built, plus the businesses I will build in the future. This image I call ‘the machine’. In one end I pour the raw materials and out the other end float large bubble-like dollar signs. The most beautiful thing about the machine is that it runs when I am not there.

 

It’s that difference I have mentioned before, when you go from ‘people supported by systems’ to ‘systems supported by people’. But building a business that runs without you being there is a slippery uphill slope, full of false turns, and the path is littered with the bodies of the incompetent.

 

Now almost every other company I have worked in that has tried to turn itself into the machine has usually started with someone building a user manual for ‘how we do stuff’.

I would argue that the problem with this approach, is that it’s normally a work of passion by one person (and therefore exclusive). Additionally, the manuals are a burden for one person to update, and they quickly become disillusioned once the manuals become out of date and no one seems to care.

 

There is another approach, a new hope if you like, and it involves using a wiki. Yes, that’s wiki as in Wikipedia. Wikipedia defines a wiki as ‘a collaborative website which can be directly edited by anyone with access to it’.

So what I am saying is: use a wiki to build your user manuals. A wiki can be a collaborative work (everyone adding their two cents worth) and much easier to maintain because everyone authorised can update it. It also has some cool inbuilt functionality for rolling back changes that aren’t agreed on.

 

It’s easy for me to say “use a wiki”, but how do you actually do it? If you’re reasonably computer competent, it’s not that hard. Here is an overview example of how I have done it before.

 

1 If you are not going to use a computer in your office, get a web hosting account with a service provider that will host your wiki. I won’t actually recommend anyone (because all providers can be absolutely terrible). But I can say I have used www.bluehost.com in the US and www.quadrahosting.com.au in Australia for this service. Annual fees will be about $100–200, plus you are going to probably need a domain name, which may cost you another say $50 for two years. The wiki I have chosen can be setup on a Windows, Unix or Mac OSX computer, as long as it’s running the Apache Web Server with PHP.

 

2. Download some wiki software, and then upload it to your new account. I have happily used a free (Open Source) product called Dokuwiki, which can be found at http://www.splitbrain.org/go/dokuwiki Dokuwiki is a full-featured wiki that doesn’t use a database. This makes it fantastic for small business as its easy to setup and powerful, but not so fantastic for large businesses, as the lack of database means it gets slow where your wiki gets very large (thousands of pages).

 

3. Create a subdomain at your hosting company and upload your Dokuwiki file there. I created a subdomain called http://wiki.greypath.com for my Greypath business. Once your file is uploaded to the new website (via FTP or using your hosting company’s file management tools), you then need to extract the Dokuwiki files from the .tar file you uploaded. If you don’t know the appropriate Unix commands (me included), have a look at the file management tools your hosting company offers, there is normally an extract function.

 

4. Install the wiki by going to the “install.php” page at your new website. In my case this was found at wiki.greypath.com/install.php Information on the install process can be found here. http://wiki.splitbrain.org/wiki:installer

 

5. That’s it. However, I do recommend that you Enable ACL when setting up the website. (ACL means Access Control List. Effectively you secure the website my making only authorised users being allowed to make changes to your pages). If you want to make your wiki look just like Wikipedia, install the Monobook theme, which can be found here. http://wiki.splitbrain.org/wiki:tpl:templates?s=themes

 

Interestingly enough it’s not unknown for wiki pages to be printed out. In fact there is more that one company in Europe actually printing out the pages of Wikipedia, binding them, then selling them as the offline version of Wikipedia (ie, an Encylopedia). Looking at it this way, its another reason why a wiki is natural candidate for a system to build user manuals.

 

Here is another interesting thought to consider: maybe your customers would like to help you build your user manual. Try opening your wiki up and see what happens. It worked for Wikipedia…

 

Brendan Lewis is the founder of two IT service firms, Edion and Verve IT, and executive director of the Churchill Club.

To read more Brendan Lewis blogs, click here.

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