Are Wikis the New Engineering Knowledge Management?

There’s a real laundry list of issues that have been circulating around engineering for quite some time. One of the notable ones have been engineering knowledge management. People have been trying to solve that one for quite some time. With so many Boomer engineers getting ready to retire and so few GenY’ers going into engineering, there’s a real problem with brain drain in the engineering organization. The need for a solution now is as acute as ever.

When people talk about social technologies applied to product development, they usually refer to the enablement of crowd sourcing or collaboration inside the engineering organization. But of all the applications of social technology in engineering, its use to enable engineering knowledge management seems most real.

In today’s post, we’ll look at what kind of social technology applies, how it might help as well as how it falls short.

What Social Technology Applies to Engineering Knowledge Management?

What’s the fit here? Messaging? Presence detection? Blogging? All could help. However, wikis in particular offer the most.

Many of you are likely familiar with wikipedia, the most widespread use of a wiki. But just in case, let’s take a look at the definition of a wiki from its entry in… well.. wikipedia.

A wiki (i/ˈwɪkiː/ wik-ee) is a website which allows its users to add, modify, or delete its content via a web browser usually using a simplified markup language or a rich-text editor. Wikis are powered by wiki software. Most are created collaboratively.

Wikis may serve many different purposes, such as knowledge management and notetaking. Wikis can be community websites and intranets, for example. Some permit control over different functions (levels of access). For example, editing rights may permit changing, adding or removing material. Others may permit access without enforcing access control. Other rules may also be imposed for organizing content.

How exactly does this apply to engineering knowledge management? Obviously, the pages within a wiki can hold the knowledge for an engineering knowledge management initiative. In that way, it can act as a live and centrally accessible location for that information. It can be housed internally and even behind firewalls and other security measures.

While a wiki might house engineering knowledge, so far we haven’t talked about how wikis might support the development of such knowledge. But in fact, wikis offer some powerful collaboration capabilities. For every page in a wiki, there is a ‘talk’ tab. On that tab, anyone that has access to the wiki can leave a comment. An entire conversation can ensue about the content of the page. In that way, many subject matter experts can correspond about the content of the page and come to consensus.

The Pros and Cons of Wikis for Engineering Knowledge Management

It’s fairly obvious that wikis can house engineering knowledge as well as enable the collaboration required to come to consensus about that engineering knowledge. However, it is not perfect. Specifically, engineering knowledge doesn’t purely exist in textual or graphical forms. In fact, engineering knowledge might exist as equations, tables, charts, figures, sketches and far more. In fact, we’ve explain the many forms that engineering knowledge can take in the series of posts on the engineering notebook. Extensions, plugins or other customizations to a wiki would go a long way to addressing these shortcomings.

Summary and Questions

Lets take a second to recap.

  • Engineering knowledge management is an initiative that has been long pursued in the community.
  • Social technologies are increasingly applied to engineering and overall product development. Many apply these technologies to crowd sourcing or internal collaboration.
  • Wikis are a natural fit in terms of housing engineering knowledge as well as providing collaboration mechanisms to enable subject matter experts to come to consensus on that engineering knowledge.
  • Wikis, however, need their capabilities expanded to capture the equations, graphics, tables, figures and sketches that also represent engineering knowledge.

Does your organization have an engineering knowledge management initiative? What tools have you used to capture that knowledge? What tools have you used to collaboration and come to consensus? Sound off and let us know.

Take care. Talk soon.