My company is looking to improve their market research data management.

Current data management style:

  • "Hey Jimbo, where's that picture of our WhatZit 2.0?
  • "yeah I remember that email about that company from that guy, gimme a few minutes to search my Outlook"
  • "who has the newest copy of the Important Competitor's product catalogue? Mine is from 2009." ... "Colleen does, and she's on maternity leave. You'll have to call her to get her workstation password..."

Desired data management style:

  • data organized neatly by topic (legal, economic, industrial, competitor)
  • for each topic, multiple media types stored together (company product images, press releases, contact info) but still neatly sorted by type
  • data editing histories
  • communal access (no data silos)

I was thinking about setting up a department wiki for all users to access. It seems to satisfy the four criteria above, but I'm a little concerned about how user-friendly (read: decipherable to non-technical people) it is for the more advanced features like image galleries, article formatting, and the like.

Has anyone here setup a wiki for non-IT people and had it not catch on fire, become a ghost town, or look like Geocities?

Bonus question: can you see any obvious drawbacks to my choice of MediaWiki (or any other wiki) for solving this problem?

(I'm hoping that some of you will have encountered this issue before and can offer some insights...)

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    It sounds to me like you need a Content Management System, as the problems you've provided are symptoms of poor content management. Wiki's are reasonable at managing content, but may not provide the fine-tuned details that could be important in a commercial setting. MediaWiki, for example, is not designed to manage user permissions. If you have secure documents, or need to keep tabs on who can see/edit what, you ought to go with a CMS; If you just need quick, versioned, open editing of shared documents, use a wiki. – zzzzBov Jun 20 '11 at 16:36
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    Data != documents. You may need a document management system rather than a content management system – Pekka Jun 20 '11 at 17:05
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    Wow! I was hoping for one or two good answers and got a whole slew, AND nearly 30 upvotes, AND 2 close votes (ha!). Thanks everyone. I've given +1s left and right. Some awesome feedback here. – Drew Jun 20 '11 at 22:30
  • They could, but they won't. – Tulains Córdova Jul 20 '15 at 15:12

Direct answer to your question: Yes. Wikipedia has tons of non-IT editors.

Longer answer: Your IT vs non-IT distinction here is a red herring. All people, IT or not, will still ignore a wiki if it isn't presented to them as something they should care about. Introducing a new data management system is always non-trivial to sell to people because you always have to make them want to change. For example, if the programmers don't see too much problem with the current bug tracking system and/or think that switching to the new one is a hassle, then they won't switch.

You need to sell the new system by explaining how it improves everything, plus explain the problems with the current system, and do things to assure people that this isn't just a passing fancy and the new system is here to stay. After all, if people think it's a doomed project then it will be a doomed project.

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    +1 For an insightful and prophetic comment! I have seen how forced management decrees on an unwilling workforce mostly always end with widescale dissatisfaction or abandonment of the new system for the old. You have to sell the idea to the users or it won't stick. If you can sell it to the most conservative of users you will have success. Years ago I sold my Grandma on the idea of eReaders and that was my clue that they would eventually become a huge success :) – maple_shaft Jun 20 '11 at 13:23
  • Wikipedia has 7 billion visits per month, and only about 300K contributors/month of which most only do one edit. So I'm not sure if that's such a fine example for accesability for editing. – vartec Jun 20 '11 at 16:12
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    I would argue that a majority of editors doing just one edit is a great example of accessibility of editing, because that means people don't have to become an expert in order to edit. But the real point is that technical hurdles will not stop people from making edits if they think making edits is important. – jhocking Jun 20 '11 at 16:20
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    less than 0.1% of users edit, which is acceptable on Wikipedia thanks too vast number of users, but that's not acceptable for small project's wiki and even less so for internal Wiki. – vartec Jun 20 '11 at 16:53
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    so I'm going to have to market the wiki idea to the marketing department... beating them at their own game, eh? drums fingertips together slowly and dramatically ... yes, yes this will work, yesssssssssssss :-) +1 – Drew Jun 20 '11 at 22:32

It depends on the wiki software. Generally non-IT people will prefer a wiki with a WYSIWYG editor and might not like wikis which require any kind of markup editing, even if the markup is very simple.

For your bonus question: MediaWiki does not provide a native WYSIWYG editor. You can see which ones do in Comparison of wiki software.

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    Heh. "Check wikipedia for wikis with editors." – Michael K Jun 20 '11 at 13:22
  • @Michael: check != edit :-P – vartec Jun 20 '11 at 13:38
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    +1 My experience with Media Wiki (one of the most popular Wikis) leads me to believe it isn't ideally suited for non-technical people. – Dan Diplo Jun 20 '11 at 15:24
  • return false; – Joe the Person Jun 21 '11 at 5:01
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    I'm an IT person, and I hate with a passion wikis that need exotic markup. My head is so full of stuff already that I don't want to waste brain cells learning some markup language. Gimme a break! (And if that's how I feel, just think how the non-technical people feel.) – quickly_now Jul 26 '11 at 2:04

In my organization, we have a very successful wiki implementation. It is based on MoinMoin, which is a Python wiki package.

To make it successful, however, it took years of dedication in staff training and singing its praises. For an organization of around 80 full-time employees, I had to hold a number of beginning and advanced training sessions, plus spend a lot of one-on-one time answering questions.

The two most difficult hurdles were:

  1. Teaching people not to think of the wiki like a Word Document, and making proper use of headings for organization
  2. Convincing people to actually migrate their existing content into the wiki, where it would be searchable and editable, rather than simply attaching old documents to the wiki.

After about two years, it started to take shape nicely. Now after four years of use, the wiki drives our organization's internal workings.

This would not have been possible without a great deal of work by me, and willingness to work one-on-one with wiki users, delivering prompt or immediate answers to their questions.

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    Taking years to sell a data management system to just 80 people might sound extreme if you've never done it before, but to me that just sounds like the longer end of normal. – jhocking Jun 20 '11 at 15:25
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    @jhocking We stuck it out because we had a major issue with document sharing and siloed departments to solve. We had an intranet website that held only a tiny amount of HR information, but piles upon piles of operational documentation in un-versioned Word docs. Top management is the last to adopt (read-only users), and unfortunately without their support-by-example, I think the adoption rate was slowed. Instead of top-down mandate, it had to be grassroots, driven by the youngest & most technical people in our office. – Michael Jun 20 '11 at 15:32

I think that a wiki can be a great approach to the organizational problem you're facing. I also believe that non-technically oriented users are very capable of learning the wiki features with some caveats.

I agree wholeheartedly with the comment about user acceptance being vital. You are more likely to face the "I'm not going to use it" or "It's just Andrew's pet project of the month" than the "I can't learn how to use this". Definitely take the time to explain how this is going to save people work, rather than create new work.

You may want to start by organizing some of the data you have in emails, on your desktop, et cetera into a few simple pages to demonstrate your goal. Keep track of how long it takes you, including learning, and any points you found tricky.

At first I would expect that you'll have formatting issues, and I think that you're probably better to recruit an editorial board than to attempt to regulate the content creation. After the initial glut of information, it should become very manageable.

You may also want to set up a how to wiki wiki with a "help" email to help get things up and running.

Just my 2¢, hope it helps.

  • That is a great way to put something I was having trouble verbalizing: explain how this will save work and not just create more work. – jhocking Jun 20 '11 at 15:05

Yes, wikipedia proved it. It require users to comply anyway, which isn't always easy, even if it is in their interest. People will resist to change.


I do see a drawback to using MediaWiki: it can get quite complicated and does take some time to learn. It can be overkill for your documentation needs.

My company is using the wiki that comes with Google Apps, which is very simple to use, and has a WYSIWYG interface. However, you do loose out of some of the categorization that comes with MediaWiki, revision history and page discussions, and the ability to embed templates. But the Google Apps wiki has been relatively easy for everyone in the office to adopt.


There is a database of wiki patterns and wiki antipatterns on Wiki Patterns.

Still, my experience with wiki usage in projects was not so successful. People were quickly frustrated with the wiki usage in the beginning, because it required effort to maintain and to update articles. Then there were fights about who should organize the structure of the wiki, or was it becoming some kind of trash bin for links.

In my experience, the way that somewhat worked was, when saying: "I have posted/updated that wiki article (link)", and send that link to the article in an email. However, the search capabilities of MediaWiki are reaching limits quite fast too (like searching for emails).

On a positive sidenote: A very useful feature of MediaWiki is to maintain categories for articles, and to have some kind of page with acronyms that are used in projects and for teaching someone new to wikis. Employees new to the wiki often liked it, because it had direct effects on their learning curve.


As an addition to everything mentioned here - I'm afraid you will have to spend some time setting up the structure, collecting documents and uploading, sorting, and tagging them.

I used to try to convince people to use these or that pieces of software or technologies, like Jabber conferences, adblock rules, pieces of JavaScript code, certain window managers, etc.

I only succeeded when showed how it could be useful for people and demonstrated how it can do 'cool thingies' rather than explaining how software A is technically superior.

No one would listen to 'fvwm has small memory footprint, is highly configurable and has Perl bindings', but a short video or a screenshot and 'look dudes, I can make any window drop down and put titlebar on either side of the window' for some reason turns out to be very convincing.

So you'll have to make most of the setup and upload up to 60% of the information there. Make sure it would not throw any cryptic error messages at users and take care of showing some sort of cool trick with it.

In other words, you'll have to sell it, and you'll have to use not only rational arguments.


Yes they can, but they have to learn to use it. You have to assure people that accidental actions - like deleting paragraphs - can be reversed. We also had to help with formatting a bit.

Unfortunately it only works if there isn't another easy way to access the desired information. And you should encourage people to use the system. Some people might stop taking part in information interchange at all, because they don't feel like using the new system at all and at the same time they know that the old way of sharing information is now undesired.

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