What’s a wiki and when should you use one instead of email?

A wiki is a collaboratively created web site.  Instead of sending out an email with an idea, a person puts that idea in the appropriate place on the wiki.  Instead of responding to an email, people go to the wiki and elaborate or edit.

This article contains a brief overview of how wikis and email lists differ on three levels:

  • The degree to which the participants are “on the same page,” i.e. they share a common understanding of the project as it evolves,
  • The ability to include the best information, and
  • How efficiently they use peoples’ time.

The situation I’ll be discussing is a project within an organization.  However, most of the points are general.


What’s the current status of the collaboration?

·         With an email list, everyone aggregates all the emails in their own way.

    • They might not have the same set of emails
    • Emails could be missing
    • They could be ordered differently

·         Different knowledge, interests and meticulousness will lead to different

    • Interpretations of the points people make in their emails,
    • Understandings of which comment each reply addresses, and
    • Levels of detail

·         With a wiki there’s one common document.

What topics have been resolved?

  • With email, it’s very difficult to ascertain that everyone has finished discussing a topic.  When they have, it’s then difficult deciding what they’ve agreed on.  If someone has more thoughts later, the topic needs to be reopened.
  • With a wiki, all topics are open all the time.  A closure process at the end can let people add final comments.

How easy is it to get up to speed on a project?

  • With email, a newcomer has to acquire the entire email thread and then summarize all the points.  In addition to the problems related above about the current status, the newcomer is at the further disadvantage of not having been able to ask questions and clarify as the project progressed
  • With a wiki, the newcomer just reads the wiki.


How diverse is the input?

  • With email, only people on the discussion list know what’s going on and can participate.  The criteria for being on the list are usually
    • The project is a high enough priority so they’ll have the time to keep up on an ongoing basis, and
    • They have a threshold amount of common knowledge to bring to this project.
  • The entire organization (and even outsiders) can be given access to the wiki
    • People for whom the project is a low priority can participate on an ad hoc basis because they don’t need to invest the time keeping up with the email thread.  They may have expertise or ideas about a specific area or areas.
    • People can bring uncommon knowledge

How asynchronous is it?

  • With an email list, you need to keep up or topics will escape you and the conversation’s focus will move ahead.
  • With a wiki, you can participate on your schedule.  If you’re very busy for a while, you can take a break and catch up later. If you want to participate 5 times a week you can.  If you want to participate once, you can.

How detailed are the contributions?

  • Generally, email discussions enforce the tyranny of the average.  People with above average interest or expertise need to hold back so their comments don’t confuse people or take up too much of their time.  People with below average interest or expertise feel pressure to learn enough so they can make intelligent comments about topics they’d just as soon ignore. No one wants to slow down the conversation with stupid questions.
  • With a wiki, people can focus their energies and interests where they will make the greatest contributions. You’re not forced to deal with topics you’re not interested in and possibly waste people’s time responding to your obligatory comments.  You can also add unformed ideas to elaborate on at a later time.


With an email list

  • Part of each meeting is spent reviewing progress and re-synchronizing people’s understanding, and
  • Everyone needs to integrate each new email into their overall understanding and refresh that understanding every time a topic surfaces.

With a wiki, there is one central understanding.

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