Friday, January 23, 2009

Activities, Workflows, and Structured Wikis

Gregorio Convertino, who recently joined ASC research area here at PARC, have been looking at how Web2.0 tools like Wikis support workflows within the enterprise. By workflow, we mean activities that are important enough to be documented in the enterprise (either because it is an important client, or that it is an activity that is often repeated.)

For this purpose, we have been doing an overall review of structured Wikis available in the marketplace (either thru open-source, hosted solution, or supported-installation). By "Structured Wiki", we mean wiki engines that are enhanced with lightweight programming features and database functionalities. The focus of our review is primarily, but on only, on the user interface and interesting new functionalities to organize content such as templating and database functions. Important criteria for us are ease of use, power of end-user-programming/organizing functionalities, and licensing.

Over the past few weeks, we have been looking for useful resources on Content Management Systems and Wikis that support structured activity management. On the Wiki side, we have found to be one of the best guides in understanding this space.

Exemplars of wikis enabling some structure are, for example, TWiki, Xwiki, TikiWiki CMS-Groupware, JSPwiki, MediaWiki, Openrecord (not on Wikimatrix's list). For a comparison matrix, click here. In this example comparison, all of the systems support Page Templates. It's clear that many people are looking for these kinds of functionalities, and we have found some discussion around this on the net. Twiki developers seems to have documented some of their thinking.

But the depth of the discussion so far isn't very deep, because we don't really seem to know yet how much structure is too much structure, and how different enterprise needs are met by each of these solutions. In our work, we are finding it quite difficult to figure out what an Enterprise should implement:

(1) There are so many different flavors of Wikis out there, and they don't always inter-operate well. Choosing one appears to mean that you're stuck with it forever.

(2) Research on end-user templates has not been focused. We have found references in academic literature, but they are pretty sparse. Here is what we have collected so far:

  • There was the work of Sparrow at PARC.

  • Di Iorio A. Vitali S., Zacchironiet S. Wiki Content Templating (WWW 2008).

  • Anslow C. and Riehle D. 2008. Towards end-user programming with wikis. Proceedings of the 4th international workshop on End-user software engineering

  • Riehle D. 2008. End-User Programming with Application Wikis. In Proceedings of the 2008 International Symposium on Wikis (WikiSym ‘08).

  • Haake et al. Wiki-Templates. WikiSims 2005

  • Reinhold. WikiTrails: building context and structure around the content and existing information organization, using trails, or paths, through the Wiki content. SigWeb 2006.

  • Jochen Rode. 2005. Web Application Development by Nonprogrammers: User-Centered Design of an End-User Web Development Tool. Ph.D. dissertation. Virginia Tech. Click system.

  • Also, there was of course the concentrated effort on activity-centric computing at IBM, as well as the work done on Co-Scripter (workflows that can be collaboratively built using a wiki-model).

  • Anyone who can help us understand this area, please get in touch!


    Utopiah said...

    I started (few months ago) a module for my wiki (a pmwiki instance) to edit modules (called recipe in the pmwiki vocabulary) within itself.
    You can see the result at

    Also regarding wiki and the general architecture I started a page with the hope of being able to write my module for all (at least most) wiki software without having to rewrite them. It's again just a path to explore more than a finished project but I guess some links could be interesting to you.

    Fabien Benetou alias Utopiah

    Valentin said...

    We here in Karlsruhe, Germany are researching the use of wikis for creation and management of workflows in the context of two projects - the Mature project and the Active project. The most recent outcome of this work is the publication "Collaborative Process Development using Semantic MediaWiki" .

    You might want to get in touch with Andreas Schmidt (leader mature project) or Denny Vrandecic (local leader active project and one of the creators of the SemanticMediaWiki) to learn more.

    Valentin said...

    sadly two of my links are broken - the link to the mature project is And the email address of denny vrandecic is

    Anonymous said...

    See Food Finds for one example (of many) of a structured semantic wiki that uses Semantic MediaWiki. I don't believe such functionality is currently possible with any other wiki engine.

    -Yaron Koren

    Ed H. Chi said...

    Thanks for the pointers. Both efforts seems like reasonable technical explorations. With the proliferation of various types of Wikis out there, being locked into one implementation of a Wiki is indeed a problem.

    The paper that you sent is a nice overview, and we'll definitely take a look there. I had a harder time figuring out the Active and Mature projects and the concrete results there.

    Yaron Koren / Food Finds:
    Very nice implementation. I can see how Semantic/Structured Wiki is really brought to life in this example. I like the faceted browsing capability offered by Food Finds. Clicking on any entity appears to link it to a larger context that you can than use to explore. Very nice.

    Gregorio said...

    - Dear Utopiah:
    Interesting resources, those on seedea. Specifically, we are interested in the rationale behind the general architecture and current or expected follow-up on this project. We understand that this is work in progress, but what inspired this work within Where do you expect that this could have an impact?

    Gregorio said...

    - Dear Valentin
    The collaborative process development paper is a useful resource. In addition to web-based solution that help users structure content (e.g., templates) we are in fact looking at good exemplars of systems that support ad-hoc workflow processes: e.g., see lit review in Bernstein (2000) "How Can Coopertaive Work Tools Support Dynamic Group Processes?" CSCW 2000 conference. Neumann, G., Erol, S.: From a social wiki to a social workflow system. 1st Workshop on BPM and Social Software, Milan, 2008.
    Some enterprise software that helps with this was proposed by Moran et al. 2005 at IBM Almaden, Unified Activity Management, see the Activity Explorer tool, see link in the post. Do you know of any other examples or relevant discussions?

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