I can't remember the last time I sat down at a restaurant without looking for the menu online before I went. Or when I last planned a trip without firing up Waze to help calculate the best time and route to go.

Today's world currency is knowledge (putting aside gold and banknotes). We've all become so used to consuming and sharing knowledge that it's tough to think about not doing it. And that knowledge has to live somewhere whether you're setting off on Sunset Boulevard or planning to sunset your product.

The ability to store, retrieve, and share knowledge has become the norm. And for keeping a 21st-century organization sustainable it has to rely on documentation.

But the type of documentation can vary and choosing the right piece of software can save a lot of time. In this post we'll look at two different types and compare them: Wikis and Knowledge Bases.

Finding the Right Type of Knowledge Management

So far we've gathered knowledge in the world is pretty important.

But fitting the right content with the right knowledge management solution is tricky. Finding the right knowledge management for the right knowledge takes brainpower.

Let's say you've just launched a new app that lets eateries build QR code menus so diners don't have to touch paper menus. You launch a Wiki for eateries to contribute and collaborate on using your software and adding their scrumptious falafels to their menu.

Doesn't sound like a good fit does it?

The first issue is eateries don't have the time to create content for your self-serve support. Why should they contribute knowledge so you can sell to more eateries?

The second dilemma is why it'd be more sensible to launch a Knowledge Base instead. The eateries want to be told how to use your software. They don't want to collaborate and guess how to launch a QR code menu.

Would an eatery want to help build your product knowledge? Probably not. Photo by Albert Hu on Unsplash

This might be an obvious example but it doesn't take long before the line between choosing a Wiki and a Knowledge Base gets murky. Should an article about responding to refund requests be collaborative or authoritative?

If information isn't sorted properly or easy to find & retrieve it causes bottlenecks. These can have a domino effect or even shut down entire divisions.

So there's a Wiki and a Knowledge Base. The two terms are sometimes used interchangeably but are actually quite different. A knowledge management system buzzing with energy and happy teammates can facilitate sharing, expansion, and frequent updates.

But which one is better? And why?

Your business processes are like the Dead Sea Scrolls and require the right casing and preservation. To help you figure out which type of knowledge management solution is best for your organization it's important to know what's both horrible and awesome about Wikis and Knowledge Bases.

The Differences Between a Wiki and Knowledge Base

While an internal Wiki (also known as a corporate Wiki) is frequently referred to as a Knowledge Base the two are actually like frogs and toads 🐸

They share some traits but aren't the same thing.

The main difference is that Wikis overall are far more collaborative in nature. It's a bit like an anarchic pirate ship with no captain: no designated editors or curators. Multiple contributors create content and submit them to the Wiki whenever. If the topic or organization is vast a Wiki can easily have hundreds of writers.

Even with fact-checkers onboard that vast sea of writers and editors can end up trying to keelhaul the boat making it rather punk and disorderly with a less authoritative outcome (and possibly scurvy) ⚓

Since there's no captain in charge or centralized and dedicated content producers for a Wiki, changes can be made by your own crew and anyone who can board then published instantly. This can be as much of an unwelcome disruption as it is a blessing.

But even if you have a dedicated captain and boatswain tasked with curation, content creation, editing, and making sure that only your crew instead of the general public can make changes, Wikis still come across as way less authoritative.

On the other hand Knowledge Bases are far more authoritative resources with a dedicated team of content producers and managers.

Wikis can be a free-for-all like a Vegas lunch buffet before COVID hit. But you have to have a special black card to create and edit content for a Knowledge Base (no Groupons accepted 🍱).

Contributors are selectively chosen with specific rights to create or edit content. The intent is to create a centralized resource with the most direly important information necessary to keep the company's heart beating.

Because Knowledge Bases are more proprietary in nature—think of opening your own on-site sandwich shop instead of buying a Subway franchise for the campus cafeteria—they frequently provide more ways to leverage knowledge internally since they can be as bespoke as you need or want.

It's like customizing a makeup palette instead of buying a ready-made one. Different divisions, departments, or markets can wind up having completely different needs. One needs neon pink eyeshadow in the middle of the day and the other wants something more understated.

You can set similar parameters with a Knowledge Base.

Because the content is more tightly curated and the way it's presented is more bespoke, the knowledge within can be more easily accessible than the Wiki approach.

The main idea is that people contribute to a Wiki or Knowledge Base to provide clear information on products, user experience, troubleshooting, or expertise in particular topics. That way the next employee who needs that information can quickly find it without spending too much time or having to flag down their teammates.

But while both Knowledge Bases and Wikis accomplish similar purposes their execution is a little different.

The Benefits and Downsides of Going with a Wiki

The Wiki model is extremely collaborative. It's like commune life: there are both wonderful and terrible things about it.

One of the biggest benefits of a Wiki is that it provides one centralized point for all internal documents. Employee handbooks, technical manuals, whitepapers, emails, recorded conversations, and webinar content. Even random doodle and rant from an employee can end up changing a product's design or solve a problem can all wind up in a company Wiki.

Unlike a Knowledge Base any employee can usually add to the Wiki at any time. This makes them extremely useful for those lightning strike moments in the breakroom when a solution for a problem is realized or a complex process is finally documented.

A major downside with Wikis is that it can be tricky to find the information you need with all the documents you throw in.

With the fast evolution of software people tend to be pretty impatient. They expect to find what they need in one click and a few Google results down. The days of pouring over a few pages of Alta Vista results are over (thankfully).

This attention deficit can sink employee engagement with company knowledge faster than being pulled out of work to watch the board attempt a Fortnite dance.

Because Wikis are so collaborative they can inadvertently forge happy new teams and partnerships even if they're on different projects or departments. Employees who work together on Wiki pages and topics can be motivated by their success and teamwork and want to keep working together! 🌟

One downside of Wiki contributions' inherent openness is that it can mean the content is inconsistent. Without a dedicated master of arms to maintain it, it can cause discord that turns into knowledge gaps.

All in all Wikis can do a fantastic job of preserving knowledge. Be warned though—they may not be sufficient depending on your internal knowledge management needs.

The Ups and Downs of Using a Knowledge Base

While Knowledge Bases are often referred to as Wikis they actually take on completely different characteristics.

They are specially designed to provide a concise no-fluff experience for customers and/or employees without overwhelming them with information. Nifty Knowledge Bases with smooth user experience help convey your brand's values to customers and look hot while doing it.

Knowledge Bases generally have more flexibility and stronger organizational capabilities than Wikis in that they can be completely bespoke for your specific needs.

Because the point of a Wiki is usually for everyone to have edit access this makes them less than ideal for authoritative information.

Think back to the QR code eatery example from earlier. Would you really want eateries to be able to edit information on how to generate a QR code? I doubt it.

This kinda content is ideal for a Knowledge Base. You can create process documentation for your team to deal with support tickets from the eateries and process documentation to customize their menus.

Since Knowledge Bases are great for keeping information accurate this makes them ideal for internal processes like employee onboarding. But here's the catch—you'd need the expert at employee onboarding to write this article themselves.

While a Knowledge Base article can depersonalize some of the experience it has the benefit of giving new employees more autonomy. They can find the information they need to get started with their new role at their own pace and start meshing with your workplace rules and culture right away (very important to have the right guacamole recipe for those post-pandemic office birthday parties) 🥑

Like Wikis, analytics can also be included with Knowledge Bases software that shows how users consume and interact with the content.

Wouldn't it be great to find out that most of a fish food maker's customers aren't even reading about some products but flock to the top-sellers troubleshooting page then top reading at "my betta won't stop jumping out and biting me"? 🐟

Unlike Wikis only a few dedicated contributors and editors actively manage the content. And because they are usually curated you can easily eliminate duplicates, outdated information, and knowledge gaps while keeping information well-organized.

One downside of having a dedicated knowledge management team managing this one-stop-shop for internal knowledge is that it means employees are less likely to have the serendipitous kind of collaboration inherent to editing a Wiki together over time.

Which Solution is Best for Me?

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for the argument of a Wiki vs. a Knowledge Base. At HelpDocs we use both to deliver product features internally and then document how to use them for customers on our Knowledge Base.

Here's a quick overview of what we covered and the differences between the two:

Wikis

Benefits

  • Great for collaboration. Wikis offer flexible workspaces that allow teams to flesh out ideas without needing them to be perfect.
  • Many writers to many writers. As Wikis are built for collaboration you're not really writing for many people to consume. This is great for content like planning your next team retreat.

🚫 Drawbacks

  • Potentially unreliable information. Most people will have edit access so this makes the information a little less reliable. This is why Wikipedia is sometimes inaccurate (or so our teachers told us 😆).
  • Unorganized information. It's unfair to say all Wikis are unorganized but it's fair to say they are less organized than Knowledge Bases. Without an owner of the information it can quickly become a sea of untitled documents.

Knowledge Bases

Benefits

  • Authoritative content. As product experts will create the content in a Knowledge Base the content is more reliable and people can complete their tasks quicker.
  • Well organized. It's rare to find a Knowledge Base that has unfinished articles lying around. With a person in charge and keeping an eye on articles it can run like a well-oiled machine.

🚫 Drawbacks

  • The information must be set in stone. There's no point in publishing information in your Knowledge Base if it's not ready. Unlike a Wiki it's not the place to collaborate while the feature is being built.
  • Expert writers. You can't get a person who has no idea how your product or service works to write an article about well...how it works. You need to get the product expert involved to come in and write. That can be tricky.

Instead of asking which one maybe you should be looking at both for different jobs. Wikis are fantastic for collaboration and planning. There's always a place for getting ideas down on a page. Knowledge Bases are great for authoritative content that's reliable and finished.

So just like a frog and toad—they can coexist without being the same. Ribbit.