The main advantage of a Wiki is that it is a free-form database.
The main disadvantage of a Wiki is that it is a free-form database.
Being a free-form database, a Wiki allows contributors to format their pages and create their content almost without limit to form. This is both a good thing and a bad thing at the same time.
Without the constraints of a traditional forms-based database, contributors can build pages which better suit the data which they are trying to present — especially if that data differs slightly from the “standard” presentation. For example, in a structured database that catalogs computing devices in an environment you may have it set up to catalog various types of devices such as printers, workstations and laptops. What happens, however, when you get an influx of new devices which don’t fall under those categories or have additional properties which cannot be captured under one of the existing categories (let’s say, a bunch of new iPhones)? Well, you need to spend some development time to create a brand new form for the new devices which accounts for their special attributes (like an extra field for the iPhone’s GSM SIM card number). In a Wiki, there is no development effort required. Because the Wiki is not constrained with forms and fields, the person entering the data can simply note the relevant attributes directly and immediately.
On the flip side, though, you do need to enforce some semblance of structure or else it will eventually become impossible to locate any data at all — even with a good search function. Extending the example above, consider ten different contributors documenting new devices. If each one places their notes in a different section in the Wiki there will be ten different places to check if you want information on the various devices. Even a good search engine will lead users astray if the information is scattered across the Wiki like this.
The solution is to enforce firm, but flexible style guides for organizing information. The style guides should only go as far as to tell where various types of information should be located within the Wiki and what information should be captured, but they should not dictate exactly how it is presented (unless the volume of information requires it). Templates for new pages can assist with ensuring the rough “outline” of the Wiki stays consistent, but still allow individual contributors to be flexible with how they present data.
Community enforcement of the style guides becomes important, too. You should encourage contributors to edit each others’ work when they notice that something isn’t in quite the right place. If there are any disagreements on where something should be placed, be sure to resolve those as a community so you can all agree to a standard.
Think of the Wiki as a very large reference manual with many writers contributing (because it is, really). When writing papers for college, you typically had to conform to a style guide such as the AP Stylebook or one of the MLA Handbooks. Similarly, professional writers are often issued a style manual particular to the publications or projects to which they will be contributing. Your Wiki style guide does not need to be as formal as those, but it does need to exist in some form or another to prevent (or at least minimize) total chaos.
Next time: Final Thoughts.