Of Wikis and Service Catalogues

May 31, 2017
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This article is Part 3 of an ongoing series by Scott Leslie (BCLC Systems Manager) exploring IT at the BC Libraries Cooperative.

When I joined the Co-op as part of their Systems team in 2013, one of the things that jumped out at me was that there was a working, active staff wiki in place. While wikis aren’t that unusual, my own experience in organizations has been that (a) wikis can be hard to start, and (b) if they exist, they can turn into sprawling, unkept heaps of disjointed documents in which nobody can find a thing. At the Co-op, it was a pleasant surprise to find one that a good portion of the organization was already using regularly to capture and share technology knowledge, and that the wiki is powered by DokuWiki, which we recommend highly for its simplicity and options for customization.

The wiki is part of the back-end IT infrastructure that underpins the Co-op’s member-facing services. Other internal services include our phone and teleconference system (based on FreePBX), our back-office software (including Quickbooks which runs on the sole Windows server in our entire environment), and Request Tracker, our ticketing software. While all of these services are a critical part of our staff working well together, none of them are that unusual and most organizations use these tools, or similar ones.

The wiki is a little more unusual and special.

For our staff, the wiki is a place to store instructions, contact information, and details about any of our services that might be useful for our coworkers. When information changes, we can quickly change or move the details in the wiki, and check our work against previous versions of a wiki page. We even have a public side to our wiki, where the NNELS team is documenting the process of accessible format production for some recently-hired production assistants from the University of Alberta’s LIS program. Every Co-op staff member uses and updates our wiki.

Still, even a great wiki requires some “gardening” time spent clipping, pruning, and rearranging. Wikis were an area I had some experience with, so back in 2013, I was happy to take on a gardener role to organize this collaborative working space. After some initial consultations and design work, we developed a new skin (or visual theme) for the wiki, and new information architecture organized primarily around the Co-op’s core services and secondarily across several horizontal needs (such as administration).

This work to organize the wiki was also good timing: it coincided with the Co-op shifting toward cross-functional teams and recognizing the growing set of services we were offering to members. With the wiki gardening, we inadvertently took the first steps towards a more formal Service Catalogue, and we did so without having to introduce any new tools. Once we’d developed our Service Catalogue, we were able to turn the front page of each and every service section on the wiki into a “dashboard”. The dashboards contain service descriptions, provide high-level metrics, identify the Service Leads, and link to key documents within in those service sections.

Another interesting aspect of our DocuWiki implementation is that ours is backed by a flat-file database, and so does not require any additional database software. We also implemented Git, a version-control system for controlling changes in files (more on Git in my next post!) to be able to easily restore and move files around the wiki. Thanks to Git, technical staff have full copies of the wiki on their desktops, and during network or server difficulties, these copies of our shared documentation are available even when the wiki itself is offline.

Wikis generally (and ours specifically) are not perfect. They require care and feeding; there can be a learning curve for newcomers (though it’s a fairly short one thanks to the judicious use of plugins); and finding the right information can sometimes take some digging. But at the Co-op, the breadth and depth of the knowledge shared across all of our teams over the last 3 years is a testament to the benefit of our wiki to the Co-op’s services and staff. We are happy to grow an active, well-used, and imperfect tool over an untested, unused, and perfect one.