To Wiki or Not To Wiki, Is That the Question?

With little fanfare, we rolled out the Communications Suite documentation wiki this week. The wiki provides Communications Suite 6 (currently in Beta) product documentation and other technical information traditionally hosted on docs.sun.com. Anyone with a Sun Online Account (SOA) is able to leave comments and/or edit content on this wiki.

I'll be the first to admit, this is a risky move on our part. Indeed, we should be wary about becoming too enthusiastic about using wikis to deliver non-open source product documentation. In many ways, such a move can be viewed as a step backward.

Some of the negatives include:

  • Figuring out how to handle contributions from the outside (and the inside, for that matter)
  • Dealing w/ release-specific information (and creating snapshots) versus creating more 'living' documentation not tied to a release
  • Loss of formatting and other production options that traditional publication tools provide (indeed, just had to do a search and replace on our wiki, which is more of a manual hunt and replace)
  • No real printing to PDF solution (yet)
  • How to localize the content when it's a constantly moving target

However, I'm ready to accept these negatives based on what's happened so far with the Comms Suite wiki. Yes, we've traded down in many areas, but in our ability to communicate with customers and respond to their needs, we've greatly traded up.

Already, in just a few scant days, the response from our users has been very positive. Our users appreciate the ability to comment on the documentation and receive immediate responses in a way that is so unlike our previous model of no back-and-forth communication whatsoever. Also, as users are making suggestions for new pages, or asking questions, or wondering about the relation between topic areas, we as the wiki info managers (aka writers) are acting in real-time to better the information and prioritize our efforts.

But I'd caution that this approach is not for everyone nor for all products. Indeed, I can't really see myself becoming an advocate (just yet, anyways); every product should look at its own needs to see if a wiki-based doc delivery has merit. Communications Suite is unique in a number of ways: we are a relatively small community, especially when compared to the hundreds of thousands of Java users out there. We have some passionate users who want to share their knowledge, and who have already been collaborating for years through email aliases. The wiki approach to product documentation seems like the next extension of this collaboration.

It's been my experience, too, that the Comms community--like most these days--is interested overall in getting timely, accurate information, however and whatever the delivery mechanism. In the past, we in Pubs have been slow to meet this need, and our toolset hasn't always been a help. One can easily see the benefit in using a wiki to meeting customer expectation for fast and good information, even if at first blush, there may be some edges that need smoothing. Again, the open wiki model will does present some downside in potentially initially accepting somewhat imperfect content by a technical writer's standards. But I believe that not only can the content be improved over time and brought up to snuff, the timeliness and expert content coverage outweigh this situation.

Stay tuned as we continue with this experiment.

Comments:

Well said Joe.

I specifically agree with the added focus on customer feedback and providing a two-way conversation. In my opinion, this outweighs many of the other challenges that you list. Looking forward to your future progress updates.

Posted by Paul Kasper on February 04, 2008 at 12:48 AM MST #

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Reporting about Unified Communications Suite Documentation, including news, Comms 101, documentation updates, and tips and tricks.

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