Su-Laine Yeo, JustSystems, Inc.
Reprinted with permission from JustSystems, Inc.

Wikipedia is probably the world’s biggest and most successful collaborative writing project. The free, web-based, multilingual encyclopedia offers site visitors millions of articles written by volunteers around the world.

Ah yes, collaboration. For many businesses, collaborative writing is almost synonymous with “pain” and practically the definition of “necessary evil.” But think: On Wikipedia, collaboration is so not-painful that people do it for free. What is Wikipedia doing right that corporations aren’t? What is Wikipedia’s lesson for corporations about how to make collaboration work?

For most corporations, the lesson is not that using a wiki is the solution to collaboration problems. Although wikis are incredibly useful, their current limitations include poor support for printing and few security options. Having said that, consider some things the Wikipedia experience can tell us, ways in which Wikipedia is way ahead of how your projects are probably run:

Work in regular structure and small chunks. Wikipedia is a massive information set. Yet it is easy for readers to navigate, and easy for writers to expand on, in part because the entire site follows a set of structural rules. Structural rules define how the site is divided into articles, and conventions for use of disambiguation pages, categories and templates. A little-known aspect of Wikipedia is that behind the scenes, volunteers put a great deal of thought and day-to-day work into establishing and communicating this model, in addition to the work of actually writing articles.

The highly structured nature of Wikipedia lends itself well to chunking. The ability of thousands of users to simultaneously contribute to Wikipedia depends on it being divided into fairly short articles, each further divided into sections. Each article, and each section, can be edited independently of all others. The practice of breaking up a document into chunks prevents the file-lock conflicts that would otherwise arise when multiple people try to edit a document at the same time.

Businesses tend to work under the assumption that one long document = one massive file. And a common source of frustration in collaborative writing projects is not being able to work on a document because someone else “has it.” At Wikipedia, an editor working on one article would never have a file-lock conflict with someone who is working on a different article, and editors can even work on different sections of an article at the same time.

Wikis are not the only technology available for working with chunked content. If you are not using a wiki, a good (if not better) alternative is XML. XML technology enables you to write small pieces of content and assemble them into much longer ones. Unlike HTML files or traditional word-processor files, XML files can be cleanly connected into a sequence, with a single table of contents, automatic numbering of headings and figures, and an index.

For consistency in appearance, separate content from formatting. Wikipedia has managed to make 16 million articles all look the same, a feat that many corporations would struggle to achieve with two articles. The principle at work at Wikipedia is called separation of content from formatting: Writers say at an abstract level what the different parts of a document are, and the actual formatting is defined in a separate file called a stylesheet.

For instance, a writer can identify that a particular phrase is a Level-1 heading, and the system will automatically format it the same way as all other Level-1 headings. On small mobile devices, the system will format Level-1 headings differently than on desktop machines, to best make use of the capabilities of the device.

With XML, you can also separate content from formatting; allowing you to take decisions about fonts, text sizes, and the color of table gridlines out of your documents and into a centrally-controlled stylesheet. Unlike current wiki software, XML technologies can also automatically put page numbers in cross-references and optimize layout for printing, taking the separation of content and formatting to another level.

For consistency in text, use reusable components. Some Wikipedia articles contain standardized message boxes and sidebars. Ever notice that different instances of a particular message box always look the same? This is because they are the same: A single piece of text and code which defines a message box is a reusable component which can be displayed in thousands of places.

Businesses rarely make use of reusable components, and copy-and-paste text many times instead. Forgetting to make updates in all copies can lead to inconsistencies which at best look unprofessional and at worst are catastrophic errors. Like wiki software, XML technologies make it possible for you to define a phrase or section in one place and display it in many different places. In collaborative teams, this capability can be essential.

Use version-management technology. The Wikipedia database stores all previous versions of all articles, which for some articles is thousands of versions. A complete revision history allows you to see who has made what changes, and if needed you can roll back to an earlier version.

If you store your word processor documents in folders on your hard drive as most organizations do, you might keep a few old versions of each file around in case you ruin the current one, but you are always worried about editing the wrong file. Not so at Wikipedia. Wikis and content management systems are designed to keep previous versions while preventing human errors in file management.

Despite having many old versions available, Wikipedia writers almost never accidentally edit the wrong version, because wiki software makes it obvious what is the most recent version of a file. Bottom line: The problem of editing the wrong version can be largely solved by technology. If you need version management, use a content management system, wiki, or source code control system.

Use security features, but sparingly. Corporations typically want to control which departments or individuals can view and edit particular sets of files, which is possible in many content management systems but not possible in current wiki software.

If you use the security features of a content management system, consider that Wikipedia’s success demonstrates the value of using security sparingly. With a few exceptions, Wikipedia allows almost everybody to edit almost everything, a policy which works surprisingly well. If you make changes easily visible rather than preventing them, you could be surprised at where writers might make positive contributions.

Su-Laine Yeo is a solutions consultant for XMetaL at JustSystems and an active member of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee. Learn more about JustSystems at, follow the company on Twitter at @JustSystems and contact Su-Laine at