While people are busy writing about what Google is doing or what they might do in the future, I would like to stop for a second and look at what they have not done. Google is pretty strong on collaboration tools: they have email (Gmail), chat (Google Talk), forums (Google Groups), and blogs (Blogger), amongst others. But Google doesn't have any Wiki or Wiki-like tool. Doesn't that get you thinking?
Two conditions have to be satisfied for a Wiki to be an effective collaboration tool:
- The community using the Wiki must work towards a common and specific goal.
- The community using the Wiki must be large enough relative to the number of pages in the Wiki. In other terms, we get into troubles when the page per person ratio gets too high.
If the two conditions are not met, the Wiki quickly become disorganized. Information becomes hard to find. And even worse, it gets harder to know where new information should be posted, which discourages people from posting new things on the Wiki.
So what happens in those cases? Does it mean that collaboration is not possible? No, it just means that a Wiki is not the best tool. The solution is instead to have a document-based approach. Imagine Word and Excel, but with documents entirely created, edited, and shared online. And in fact, you don't need to imagine: Google just did that with Google Spreadsheets and Writely they acquired earlier this year, which they put together under the just released Google Docs and Spreadsheets.
Google Docs and Spreadsheets is a collaboration tool. Some will go as far as saying that it competes head-on with Wikis. I think that instead it complements Wikis, allowing more efficient collaboration in those cases where there is not a strong enough overarching goal or a large enough community to make a Wiki effective (which, in my experience is the case more often than not). Google Docs and Spreadsheets, and more generally the document-based approach, provides a good collaboration solution because:
- Each document might be larger than a Wiki page, but it is much smaller than a whole Wiki. So it is easier to find a common goal amongst people working on the document, and keep the document organized.
- While Wiki pages need to be constantly kept organized, documents are more like emails: you focus on your current emails, those are in your inbox or at the top of the list. Older emails are still there, you can still find them, but they don't get in your way. You don't need to keep them organized. The same is true with documents: older documents and spreadsheets that you haven't even looked at recently will just fall to the bottom of the list.
- Everyone is very familiar with the concept of document: We know we can send them around. We can have each document shared with a different set of people. We can archive them. We can save them in a format that allows us to work on them while we are on a plane...
- And finally, while this might be a implementation deficiency on the part of Wikis, it is an important one: documents are WYSIWYG, Wikis are not. Documents don't have a "view" and an "edit" mode, with the "edit" mode sometimes even using a cryptic syntax. With documents, and in particular Google Docs & Spreadsheets, when you have a document in front of you, you can always modify it right there. It is even more than WYSIWYG: in the case of Google Spreadsheets if you and another person have opened the same spreadsheet on two different computers, as soon as modify the content of a cell and press enter, your modification will show up right away on the other person's computer. The same is true with Google Docs: two or more people can edit the same document at the same time and see with a small delay modifications done by other parties. This is collaboration.
Wikis are used for many different purposes. They are different things to different people, and my comments here are based on my experience. I don't pretend to be in a position to have an overarching conclusion regarding Wikis. Instead, I would be interested to read what you think. Is your experience different? Just leave your comments here :).