Business Report

How a Corporate Change Spurred the Need for 'The Wiki'

A publishing company finds that social software cuts down on the duplication of work.

Five years ago, United Business Media, which owns a number of trade publications and hosts trade shows, reorganized itself as part of a plan to improve the online presence of its properties. The 100-year-old company broke its three divisions into a federation of 15 semiautonomous businesses, each catering to a specialized audience from jewelry makers to the aviation industry. UBM says the move helped it increase the percentage of its revenue that comes from online advertising rather than print, but it also created a new problem. The company had dismantled the hierarchical structure that had facilitated communication among 6,000 employees around the world.

Peer to peer: This screen shot shows the software that employees across United Business Media’s 15 divisions call “the wiki.”

“In our previous organization structure, what happened was that if there was a piece of know-how that needed to be carried outside of a division, it needed to travel up before it could get out,” says Jennifer Duvalier, UBM’s director of people and culture. That wouldn’t work now that the company was “as flat as it was geographically diverse,” she adds.

So in 2008, UBM launched an experiment that it now calls “the wiki,” even though it involves more than a simple wiki. The company spent an undisclosed amount on a package of collaborative tools from Jive Software. Using the tools, UBM’s employees can create a searchable online profile, similar to one on Facebook, that lists their expertise and past projects. Employees can create blogs, groups dedicated to a topic, and project pages where members can update status reports and upload documents.

As more employees joined the wiki, people learned that other divisions were working on problems similar to theirs, even if the audiences they served were completely different. For instance, “we discovered, almost embarrassingly, we had many, many people in different divisions trying similar mobile projects,” says Ted Hopton, manager of UBM’s wiki community.

Now, Hopton says, employees can build on work being done in other divisions and share tips quickly. “They’ll ask, ‘Hey, I see you did this with your mobile app—how did you do this? Can I use your code?’ Hopton says. “Frankly, they would have never have known each other existed, or how to reach one another, without the wiki.”

Since most of the divisions within UBM host websites that do not compete with one another for viewers, employees have shared insights about search engine optimization or discussions on successful strategies for putting articles behind a pay wall. “This isn’t just `Facebook for the enterprise’ and ‘we’re getting warm and fuzzy,’” Hopton says. “We’re really wrestling with the fundamental aspects of our business.”

Rebecca Ray, vice president and managing director of human capital at the nonprofit think tank the Conference Board, says that like Wikipedia, collaborative tools within businesses often become “self-policing.” Good ideas continue to generate interest, while bad ideas lose steam or are corrected by knowledgeable employees. “People only come back to anything if they think that there’s content that’s relevant, that it’s quality, and that it can be trusted,” she says. By that measure, UBM’s effort has probably been successful. Duvalier says 73 percent of employees use the wiki at least once a month.

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Collaboration Tools

Powerful software and widespread Internet connectivity are making it easier than ever for people to work together no matter where they happen to be. Throughout March in Business Impact, Technology Review will look at the latest tools for collaboration within and between organizations. We’ll analyze why some technology-enabled collaborations work and why others don’t. We’ll explain why some collaboration tools have failed to prove useful to the employees meant to benefit from them. We’ll present case studies, profiles, and interviews that help you understand how to make the people in your organization more collaborative—and more productive.

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