I'm back home after a week-long stay in the UK where I spent a great deal of my time training people on using Confluence and more talking to even more people about how they can use it to enhance their productivity and ability to collaborate with others.
We've recently taken on a bunch of new people, ranging from developers and testers to admin and marketing staff - all of whom have different learning and business needs. I give them all exactly the same training (though the levels we go in to and the speed of delivery varies).
It's remarkable that one tool can be used by so many different departments with different goals etc. But then again, perhaps it isn't.
It's all about creating content: what that content is, it doesn't really matter, the tools are the same even if the desired outcomes are not.
All Wiki Usage Is Not The Same
Many people see a wiki as a knowledge base, and a great place for creating alls sorts of collaborative documentation - and I don't just mean technical writing - which is true of course. But it's also a great place for working in too.
For example, I've created my own personal space in the wiki and set its permissions up so that it's totally private. This means that I can write what I like and no one else can see it. Which gives me the freedom to not worry about how a page looks or to be too concerned about using full-on writing skills. (Do you know how much pressure a writer is under when they send out emails etc? Because not only is the smallest mistakes lept on by colleagues ever anxious to pull your leg, but when you see a mistake yourself, you feel like you're looking at a huge flashing neon sign that screams "The Tech Writer is Crap!" at the world.)
It also keeps everything you write out of the reach of the search engine. And although you colleagues will never thank you for this, it does mean that you can be quietly satisfied that you are, in a very small way, helping the company run slightly more efficiently.
Your personal space can be used in the same way as any other space is.
So all the editing, the search and the plugins can all be used to do anything you want. You can even create your own templates, which you can either make available to the whole wiki, or keep hidden in your own space.
Agile, Step By Step
We've recently started using the Agile development process and because of this, I'm now getting lots of small bits of info to work on. These will develop through the sprints and eventually be reviewed and published in the user information space. Because I do all this in my own space, I can organise it how I feel (as opposed to structuring it to fit the current content), add links to related info, make notes to myself, and chuck in ragged graphics. I can also add questions to the text that I'll either answer as I find out more through the Agile process, or I'll ask colleagues about if I get stuck. So nothing's missed and everything can be included and I don't have to worry about the formatting until I'm happy with the text.
Because of this, I can refine the content until all the questions have been answered and removed and I'm left with content that can be published to clients. The benefit of all this is that the work is never publicly available until I publish it - so I don't have to worry about rough drafts and misinformation being found and used by others.
In A Wiki, Everyone's A Collaborator
Which means every one else can do the same - even those who are reluctant writers, people who are afraid that they can't write or have problems with grammar and spelling. Of course, if they do want to publish their content, then they'd be wise to get their friendly technical writer in to give it the once over. And that's what colleagues do, I'm glad to say.
While I'd be the first to admit that there isn't a tidal wave of new content from other non-writers, there is definitely a ripple (the ripple being the amount of small edits that people do to correct the accuracy of the content, or the queries they present the tech docs and other departments with and the pages of new content they are adding). This is partly helped because everyone knows that the tech docs dept is keeping an eye on client content and will double-check everything that's published there, and partly because they're getting more and more confident about publishing to public spaces. As they see the benefits of collaborating (though some would recoil at that word: contributing might be a better one), and how easy it is to do, it becomes the most sensible thing to do.
And this benefits us all, as there's no way one person can write everything that could be written as far as the user info is concerned.
Now instead of having one technical writer trying to do everything, more content is being produced because other people see a gap, know that they've already got a load of notes in their private space, and start turning them into something that can be used by us all.
The beauty of this is two fold: firstly what they write about isn't limited to user content alone, it can be anything at all; and secondly, because people get used to adding notes etc to the wiki that they know could be useful to other people, they stop pouring it into the secret silos that lurk inside every PC and laptop. And that is a very good thing for any organisation of any size, in any field of business.