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Workers of the World--Collaborate
Created by a band of web rebels, wiki software lets employees share the latest intelligence no matter where they're located.
By Cindy Waxer

(FORTUNE Small Business) – When a marketing firm named Informative created an online site where its 50 employees--most of them scattered among Palo Alto, New York City, and London--could exchange information, it was a disaster. The site was meant to be a place where salespeople could share leads and get the latest information about customers. But with only two of Informative's time-strapped IT professionals overseeing maintenance, the site quickly grew stale and irrelevant. In fact, the company's employees eventually abandoned it altogether. "There were documents on there that were literally three, four, five years old," recalls Alan Flohr, Informative's vice president of sales. That was two years ago.

Based in Brisbane, Calif., with revenues of less than $25 million, Informative sells web-based applications that help businesses collect customer information through online surveys and discussion forums. For instance, when Royal Mail, Britain's postal service, wanted to find out how small businesses felt about a newly launched delivery service, it hired Informative to add an online survey to its official website.

Informative, wanting its salespeople to have the best available information on its customers, turned to newly resurgent intranet software called wiki, and it likes the results.

Developed in 1995, wiki began as a tool used by anti-authoritarian techies working in software-development companies. Derived from the Hawaiian term for "quick," wiki (variously pronounced "wicky" or "weekee") is a website that allows users to add and edit content through a simple, browser-based user interface. Forget about HTML and Java programming. With wiki software, users merely log in to a password-protected site, click "edit this page," and start typing to add, delete, or edit content. Graphics are kept to a minimum, and features such as fonts are standardized so that users can focus instead on the content.

From its roots in underground software development, wiki is starting to gain recognition as a corporate-friendly, low-cost collaboration tool. Most wiki programs allow participants to receive e-mail notification as edits occur, and they preserve previous wiki pages in a history file for future reference.

Informative chose software from Socialtext, a Palo Alto-based startup that specializes in wiki technology. Main competitor JotSpot promises to heat things up, but its flagship product is still in beta. (JotSpot says it expects to release the product this spring.) And while wiki software can be downloaded free, experts say these giveaway programs don't offer the same functionality and ease of use as Socialtext's solutions.

At an annual cost of $495 for five users and $10 for each additional user, Socialtext's Workspace program is a hosted service that includes technical support, security, and maintenance--an appealing package for small businesses with limited financial and IT resources.

Informative purchased the software last June, and it was up and running in 24 hours. Within a few months it was already paying dividends. Today more than three-fourths of the company's workforce visits the site at least once a week to access information ranging from product specifications and economic analyses to best practices and common customer objections. By placing information at employees' fingertips, says Flohr at Informative, "the wiki," as the site is called, has reduced the number of information requests that sales managers receive from employees by 90%. In turn, employees save about two weeks a year that would have been spent sifting through outdated intranet content. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the time savings alone mean the software pays for itself about 20 times over.

Socialtext's Workspace also addresses the bane of most small businesses: in-box glut. Rather than e-mail a PowerPoint presentation or Flash demonstration to 50 employees, Informative can put it on the wiki for everyone to see. Socialtext automatically converts the files and posts them.

According to Flohr, that feature has whittled down Informative's e-mail volume by 30% and has "reduced the number of big honking attachments people have in their e-mail boxes." Although converting files into wiki pages is relatively new for Informative's employees, Flohr speculates that widespread adoption could cut bandwidth costs in the future.

For all its benefits, wiki technology still has a long way to go before displacing more robust collaborative software such as IBM's Lotus Notes/Domino or Microsoft SharePoint, which can handle more users and are priced comparably. Lotus and SharePoint require more IT support and maintenance than wiki programs--a big concern for small firms--but wiki is still working to shed its image as an experimental--and thus risky--pastime for the tech savvy. "Wiki is still under the radar of many companies," says Peter O'Kelly, a senior analyst with the research firm Burton Group. But for those willing to take a chance on this relatively new technology, O'Kelly says, wiki promises "to open up the utility of collaboration"--to renegades and growing businesses alike.