This week I want to give a quick demo of how collaborating with colleagues on a project actually works in Confluence, and describe some of the ways business benefits from this.

This won't take long and will cause no pain: in fact you may even find your 'Happiness' button being pushed.

Collaboration: Last but not Least
Over the last couple of years our business has aquired several other companies who had their own documentation and documentation systems. These are spread around Europe and Scandanavia. To complicate matters further, we have several other offices around the world. Fortunately the wiki is used a central point of reference, a meeting point if you will, by us all.

Several people, myself included, wanted to do something to bring all the documentation from the various departments and offices together. We wanted to coordinate not only the docs themselves, but their styles and formats, processes and deliverables. We also wanted to see where our strengths and weaknesses were, and see how we can use this info to improve our client-facing and internal documentation.

To do this we formed a new group and started a new space within the wiki called Global Documentation. We then invited as many people to join the group as we could think of. Naturally not everyone invited has the time or inclination to do the work, and those who wanted to were able opt out, did but many are still part of the group.

There are three main movers in this group (naturally I'm one), with other members adding their feedback and thoughts on a variety of subjects whenever the need arises. For example: versioning the user info. 

One person started this converstion with me, and I added it as a topic to the Global Docs space. Using the @mentions functionality to target those I knew were responsible for user documentation, I asked the group for feedback on how they version their info.

How-To On Using @mentions
To use @mentions, all you do is add the '@' symbol and then start entering the persons name. A list will appear that auto-populates as you type. When you save the page or comment, the persons you targeted is automatically sent a notification. It's that simple.

Back To The Future OF Documentation
They were notified as soon as I saved the page and within a matter of minutes a few had added their own updates. So with very little effort, a a globally-based conversation had started. Now every time someone updates these pages, everyone involved gets notified.

Because the notifications include the updates, they can see how the conversation is going without having to go to the wiki. Even better, they can reply to updates really easily using the built in Reply option. 

This means:
  • people are getting involved in a way they wouldn't have before.
  • because people are talking to each other, we're discovering more about how the company works, and where we can improve this.
  • conversations are happening in one place.
  • the conversation is not getting lost, spread out and dissipated in multiple emails.
  • no one is being accidentally left out.
  • the whole conversation can be found and searched by anyone with access to the space. (And this space is open to the entire company as we believe everyone should have the opportunity to take part, even though their involvement may be limited to being a watcher.)

On top of this there are some more subtle benefits, such as using the Like button to show that you've read something even if you can't reply to it immediately. I do this because, and this is really helpful if you're targetting a specific person, it lets the other person know that you've at least read what they said.

This probably isn't what Atlassian were thinking of when they built this functionality into Confluence, but it suits our needs to use it this way.

From all of this you can see how, on a global level, geography and time are not an issue. People all around the planet are connecting, conversing and collaborating without little effort.

The business benefits are many pretty obvious: in my opinion if you're not using this sort of technology, then you are actually missing the opportunity to get people involved and working together without a song and dance. 

Is this something you can afford not to do? 

Collaborate and Win, Win, Win
One of the reasons I believe wikis are the future of documentation is their ability to be collaborative. But what does collaboration mean in technical documentation and for technical writers?

At a basic level it's simply the ability for several people to work together on one document or set of documents. 

Ok, that's not exclusive territory, there's plenty of tools out there that will do that. But in my opion there is a big difference between those sorts of systems and a wiki. The collaborative advantage wikis have I'm talking about is that people are more likely to contribute new documentation and ideas.

For example, in the last few weeks we've had new user documentation added by both the development dept and consultants. In fact the content from the consultants started out as a 90 page Word doc which they then re-wrote for the wiki. That's right 90 pages of free, at-the-coal-face technical writing that I would have done, as a lone technical writer, 'some time in the future.' Which means at any time in the future, or not at all.

Another example are the minor updates the Support dept frequently makes to the user information. They not only update the content but expand it as well. Which helps our clients and internal users alike.

This 'many hand makes light work' approach brings several benefits to both the company and clients, for instance:
  1. The quality of client facing info is improving all the time.
  2. As the technical author, I can focus on writing new development etc.
  3. Staff feel empowered to make changes and suggest ideas. 
An example of the latter is that people have ideas for content they'd like to see on the wiki. Because they know we're always looking for new content, they now suggest new topics and will either write a rough draft which I can then re-shape into user information, or they will supply the background information for me to work from. They will also review and correct it before publication. Before the wiki these ideas would have been still-born.

On a more global scale, in a multi-national company such as ours, exposing all our docs internally means our offices around the world can see what the other are producing. This has helped us to see where we can make improvements and to unify both our processes and the look of all our documentation.

So using a wiki has not only helped remove data silos, but because people feel empowered, they are motivated to both suggest new ideas and to improve quality.

All these things provide a much more positive and collaborative mindset which benefits colleagues, the employer and clients. It's a win win win situation, which is not something you can say about a lot of other systems is it?
That Was The Week That Was
Earlier this year my employer bought two companies who are also in the trading arena. One's based in Norway and Scotland, and the other's in Switzerland. This means we have even more wiki users to cater for and bring together. 

One of the problems any organisation faces when it's spread around the globe is creating unity. What can we do to bring people together so that we're connected?

The answer is, of course, the wiki: home of sharing and collaboration. 

But you knew I'd say that. But it isn't so simple is it? 

Well, no. You have to get people involved and the only way to do that is to show how it benefits them. And how do you do that when there's 400 people working in offices as far apart as the USA, the UK and Singapore? Good question: it's not going to be easy, but I have a cunning plan.

But First, This!
When pages are edited one of the things that has to happen is that anyone who's interested in the page should be notified of the change. This is easy enough if they were the page's creator or if they're someone who's edited the page already - they get updated automatically. As does anyone who's been added to the page as a Watcher.

But what about clients, how do they find out? Well it's very easy, all you have to do is add the Recently Updated macro to the home page of the space you want to take the data from, set up a couple of parameters - such as the way you want results displayed and the number of results shown, and press Save. Bingo! Finished.

Every time the page is opened or refreshed the list updates automatically. By having this on our user information's home page, anyone who opens it can see not only the most recent updates, but who made them and when. These are all shown as links, and there's a link to the page itself so users can jump directly to it. Which is very handy if it's of particular interest to them. 

And it saves me bags of time too: in our previous wiki I had to add all this data manually, so I've saved myself as much as 30 mins or more per day just by using one simple macro that takes about two minutes to set up (and forget).

Share and Collaborate
With something like eight different parts of the company producing a wide variety of documentation (everything from user info to sales and marketing) one of our challenges is making sure we're all using the corporate ID etc, but there's something else that's just as important: knowledge sharing.

And knowledge can be anything from the sort of docs each office produces to the tools we use. So what can we do about sharing our knowledge, skills and experience? Where can we keep it and how to make sure everyone who's involved knows where they can find this info AND stay in the conversation loop?

There's only one place of course: our very own wiki home; the Global Documentation space. 

At the moment this has very little info but it has it's own blog already (which is automatically included when you create a new space), plus a couple of other pages listing the team members and their 
details, including their areas of knowledge and skills.

Over the next few days I intend to add some info about what our office produces and how, and once that's done I'll be adding all the documentalists as Watchers (Tools/Manage Watchers) so they'll all be updated when I publicise the space to them (by editing the home page, which will have a welcome message and explanation about what the space is for). 

Once that's done, we will run all our conversations through the wiki and not use email. That way everyone will be kept up to date with everything as it happens, and all the conversations, content updates and comments will be in one easy-to-search space, and nothing will be lost or duplicated.

And once we've had that up and running for a couple of months, I intend to demo it to other departments and show them how, with very little effort, they can achieve the same thing and enjoy the benefits of sharing and collaborating.

You can find out more about wiki collaboration by clicking here.