Word or Wiki?

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in August of 2009.

An award-winning friend of mine at NTEN referred me to this article, by Jeremy Reimer, suggesting that Word, the ubiquitous Microsoft text manipulation application, has gone the way of the dinosaur.  The “boil it down” quote:

“Word was designed in a different era, for a very specific purpose. We don’t work that way anymore.”

Reimer’s primary reasoning is that Word was originally developed as a tool that prepares text for printing. Since we now do far more sharing online than by paper, formatting is less important. He also points out that Word files are unwieldy in size, due to the need to support so many advanced but not widely used features. He correctly points out that wikis save every edit, allowing for easy recovery and collaboration. Word’s difficult to read and use Track Changes feature is the closest equivalent

Now, I might have a reputation here as a Microsoft basher, but, the truth is, Word holds a treasured spot on my Mac’s Dock. Attempts to unseat it by Apple’s Pages, Google Docs and Open Office have been short-lived and fruitless. But Reimer’s absolutely right — I use Word far more for compatibility’s sake than the feature set.  There are times – particularly when I’m working on an article with an editor – that the granular Track Changes readout fits the bill better than a wiki’s revision history, because I’m interested in seeing every small grammatical correction.  And there are other times when the templates and automation bring specific convenience to a task, such as when I’m doing a formal memo or printing letterhead at work.  But, for the bulk of writing that I do now, which is intended for sharing on the web, Wikis put Word to shame.

The biggest problem with Word (and its ilk) is that documents can only be jointly edited when that’s facilitated by desktop sharing tools, such as GoToMeeting or ReadyTalk, and now Skype. In most cases, collaboration with Word docs involves multiple copies of the same document being edited concurrently by different people on different computers.  This creates logistical problems when it comes time to merge edits.  It also results in multiple copies of the revised documents on multiple computers and in assorted email inboxes. And, don’t forget that Track Changes use results in larger documents that are more easily corrupted.

A wiki document is just a web page on a server that anyone who is authorized to do so can modify.  Multiple people can edit a wiki concurrently, or they can edit on their own schedules.  The better wiki platforms handle editing conflicts gracefully. Every revision is saved, allowing for an easy review of all changes.  Earlier versions are simple to revert back to.  This doesn’t have to be cloud computing — the wiki can live on a network server, just as most Word documents do.

But it’s more than just the collaborative edge.  Wikis are casual and easy.  Find the page, click “edit”, go to work.  Pagination isn’t an issue. Everything that you can do is usually in a toolbar above the text, and that’s everything that you’d want to do as well.

So when the goal is meeting notes, agendas, documentation, project planning or brainstorming, a wiki might be a far simpler way to meet the need than emailing a Word document around. Word can be dusted off for the printed reports and serious writing projects. In the information age, it appears that the wiki is mightier than the Word.

Next week I’ll follow up with more talk about wikis and how they can meet organizational needs.

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