As I lament how poorly most people use today's collaboration tools, I also put some of the "blame" on the collaboration tool makers for making people think the work effort is supposed to be pretty. I am a great fan of wikis, but many of the examples they show look more like clean web layouts than successful collaboration.
Wikis are my preferred tool for collaboration. They are flexible and dynamic, rather than regimented and overly formatted. They enable permissions-based discussions and editing. And they have become truly WYSIWYG in the past few years. I enjoy using PBWorks and plan to experiment with the new Zoho Wiki 2.0 release. At the same time I am frustrated that many of the people I work with are uncomfortable writing on top of another person's work, and both these wiki providers further this issue by displaying cleanly-formated examples (PBWorks and Zoho).
My message to wiki tool makers and users is effective collaboration is supposed to look messy! These are more than easy web editing tools. Instead we constantly see portrayals and demos that show pretty, single-author pages. Or when they add edits in the demos the examples are small increments such as "make sure you use the new corporate blue (104E8B) in header" or "add example from our latest press release" or "this is your best work ever!".
The best ideas come from debate, discussion, disagreement, wrong turns, and blind alleys. Let's show users how best to use the power of the tools to hash out arguments interactively on wikis, rather than having face-to-face meetings or conference calls -- with all the logistics hassles, limited participation, and lack of "audit trail" to record the two sides to a debate. I commonly tell my collaborators I expect them to write on my work and all I ask is that they follow a few simple rules:
- Disagree respectfully. Avoid flame wars.
- Use a different color or font for their entry, and add their initials and even the date stamp at their entry. I like the motto (from The Well): "You Own Your Words"
- Preserve the earlier work they are replacing, even if they apply the strike-out formating to it. Avoid deleting anyone's work.
- Distinguish between facts and opinions.
- Focus on the objective to reach the right decision, rather than make the answer look pretty.
Wikis are great for capturing all these debates and then highlighting the outcome. As a parallel, think of all the joy scientists have had exploring Einstein's workbooks, with all the false starts and failed hypotheses, rather than focusing on what font he used to write E=MC2. Consider the discussion about what the U.S. founding fathers intended by the constitution by examining the federalist papers and all the letters they wrote. Imagine the value if all these discussions were captured on wikis. Messy, but effective.
Now go out and muck up some wiki pages.