Sharing what you know

Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, reports that wikis are where wise workers write words of wisdom for the world. Read on to find out how wikis can help you around the plant, too.

By Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP

No doubt, you’ve already heard of a concept called Web 2.0, which refers to abandoning the familiar one-way street in which someone posts a static Web page for your viewing pleasure to a multilane highway that’s more sophisticated and interactive. With Web 2.0, users can become part of the page development process.

Under that definition, Web 2.0 is sometimes used in conjunction with the term social networking. This concept refers to the collaborative use of the Web among users who share a common interest in just about anything you can imagine. For example, imagine that some subset of the subscribers to this magazine has an obsessional-grade interest in the cutting-edge principles and practices of industrial maintenance and asset care. Given that there’s a limit to how effective one person can be in vacuuo, social networking can allow many of these maintenance professionals to more easily achieve the benefits of sharing the best practices of their common passion.

According to the online American Heritage Dictionary, a wiki is a collaborative Web site, the content of which can be edited by anyone who has access to it. Users don’t need to know anything about HTML because the wiki software does the conversions. The only formatting rules one needs are when using hyperlinks to connect pages, but the procedure is rather simple. Join me for a leap into that digital morass we call the Web in search of practical, zero-cost, noncommercial, registration-free wiki resources that hold promise for improving your maintenance organization. Remember, we search the Web so you don't have to.

Wiki, the movie

Some people learn best through the written word, others find that images are a more effective tool for entertainment and self-instruction. If you’ve found that the descriptions in the previous Web citations don’t quite explain the wiki concept well enough for you to feel comfortable with getting involved, point your trusty desk rodent at www.commoncraft.com  and enter the phrase “wikis in plain English” in the search box at the upper right. This will bring you face to face with a charming, low-budget four-minute video that explains how a wiki could be used for planning and executing one specific collaborative project, a camping trip for four friends. I think you’ll discover that the wiki concept is easier than you might think.

Wikis for everyone

If the wiki concept is to function as intended, it needs more than one person with an interest in a topic that’s sufficiently broad, and those folks must choose to produce an enduring body of knowledge that provides them with some immediately recognizable and tangible benefit. It can be the perfect vehicle for a collaborative effort that renders real value. The trick to making it work, I think, is some critical number of active participants. Consider some of the interesting, active wikis that were unearthed during research for this column.

Water sports are a popular summer pastime for many people having convenient access to a body of navigable water. Who wouldn’t want to be out there on a perfectly fine day, surrounded by friends, doing something enjoyable? The rising cost of gasoline, however, might put a damper on our ability to produce engine-induced wakes, leaving us with swimming, canoes, sailboats and kayaks. The latter category of vessel, incidentally, has a wiki called KayakWiki, originally launched by Nick Schade in 1997. Paddle you way over to http://en.kayakwiki.org to see an example of a long-lived, successful Wiki.

Then, there are loftier, sky-high topics, such as outer space, that have been wikified. Some of the science fiction fans out there in readerland might have an interest in a wiki that’s focused on the Star Wars movies. Started in March 2005, by Angela Beesley along with two others, who go by the monikers WhiteBoy and LouCypher, Wookieepedia already has almost 57,000 articles covering just about every aspect of the films. Swing your light saber in the direction of http://starwars.wikia.com for access to this treasure trove.

Speaking of fantasy characters, no doubt you’re aware of the runaway popularity of the seven Harry Potter books and the movies they’ve spawned. That demand for fantasy expressed by every age group has made the author, J.K. Rowling, quite wealthy. And, the resultant Pottermania has attracted the attention of quite a few people and organizations trying to cash in on the phenomenon. One example is RDR Books in Muskegon, Mich., that planned to publish the “Harry Potter Lexicon” until Rowling and Warner Brothers filed suit. So, while the book might be on hold for a while, the Harry Potter wiki is alive and kicking. Waving your wand at http://harrypotter.wikia.com is all you need to do to make the nearly 2,200 articles about Mr. Potter and friends and foes appear from out of thin air.

Let’s get serious

We really should be talking about industrial maintenance, though. Not many hard-hitting maintenance-related wikis turned up during research for this column. Many of those that claimed some connection to industrial maintenance were nothing but thinly disguised sales brochures, although they were arranged in the traditional wiki manner, with edit options and everything. So, who out there in the real world is going to spend time editing some vendor’s promo piece? It might be the case that if you want a true maintenance wiki, you’ll need to build your own.

Just do it

By now you might even be thinking that you can use a corporate intranet-based wiki to gather plant-specific best practices for your industrial maintenance activities. Such wikis could serve as a knowledge repository to help combat the maintenance crisis we hear about so often and as a training tool for maintenance technicians who might not be familiar with some of your equipment or procedures. These wikis also could be useful for bringing outside contractors up to speed before and during an outage. Well, your plan can be accomplished and, as an example, you could model your homebrew wiki after what you’ll find at www.wikihow.com, the home of Palo Alto-based wikiHow — The How-to Manual That You Can Edit. The site claims to have more than 37,000 articles, but those I examined appeared to be standalone pieces, with an absolute minimum of hyperlinked text one would expect to see. This suggests that there might be quite a bit of informational redundancy in the 37,000 entries. But I digress. The point is that it’s possible. Think of the implications.

Wiki to go

It’s a safe bet to say that most of the readers of this publication are carrying a wireless Web-enabled device. With daily life on the plant floor requiring nearly instantaneous communication in the name of competitive advantage, you might find it comforting to know that there exists a Web site that features an encyclopedia structured specifically for wireless devices. Now you won’t need to return to your laptop to wiki yourself out of a jam. Dig out your trusty digital sidekick and ask it to access http://wapedia.mobi, where you start your exploration by selecting the language of choice. When the page opens, select “Categories” and see the 10 broad categories, each of which has between five and 16 options. Selecting one of these gives you ever longer menu choices and finer gradations of information. Play the selection game long enough and you’ll get to the ultimate editable Wiki pages that provide more information and minutia than you ever thought was possible to squeeze out of a handheld device.

First Noah Webster, now this

It’s obvious why using an online encyclopedia is more convenient than toting around all 20 volumes of the print version. But, a dictionary is a different case. Everyone should have one at their disposal — at least everyone here at magazine central has their own copy of that two-inch-thick book of words. If you run into terminilogy that need a definition and find the thought of keeping an additional reference book on your desk, then http://en.wiktionary.org is the place for you. This is where you’re going to find Wiktionary, the dictionary counterpart to Wikipedia’s encyclopedia approach. As is characteristic of all wikis, you can edit the entries to improve them for the seeker following in your footsteps. This is better than having a printed dictionary because Wiktionary can include jargon, slang and other evolving terminology that proves English is still a living language. So, think for a moment of some obscure word and see if the folks at Wiktionary include it. If not, enter it, define it and the world will thank you.

Practice makes perfect

Collaboration implies active participation. Many people, however, are reluctant to start messing around with someone’s Web page when changes are immediately visible to any subsequent user of that Wiki. Some might find that being able to exert such instantaneous world-wide influence over a Web site is a scary thought. It’s for those perhaps unnecessarily timid folks that I present access to a wiki that can’t be damaged by anything you can do to it. It gets reset to its original content once a day. I’m talking about the wiki sandbox, where you can edit content freely and you won’t permanently wreck anyone’s hard work. This site comes to you through the efforts of Janne Jalkanen, the lead developer of the open-source JSPWiki, which is based in Espoo, Finland. Jalkanen’s site, www.jspwiki.org, has a lot of content. When you go there, I recommend that you start with three items. First is the sandbox, accessed on the left side. The second is the piece titled WikiEtiquette, also on the left. Third, you could take advantage of the free download, including source code, which will give you your very own wiki platform.

Self-referential to the max

Just for fun, you might want to read the Wikipedia entry for wiki, which you’ll see at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki.

E-mail Executive Editor Russ Kratowicz, P.E., CMRP, at russk@putman.net.

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