IT execs eager to exploit Web 2.0 wave

What good is a blog if no one reads it? IT managers find out and begin to make blogging and other Web 2.0 tools a more strategic part of their business.

Google Inc.'s $1.65 billion acquisition earlier this month of YouTube, the popular video-sharing Web site, has

many businesses trying to figure out how they, too, can harness the power of Web 2.0 technologies.

While few of them expect this kind of success with social collaboration tools, many are launching blogs and wikis as part of their company Web sites. Many program Ajax into their sites to make them more interactive and navigable or try to get their brands mentioned on Web 2.0 hot spots like Digg and del.icio.us.

There's a reason why management is afraid to let go of control.
Kirk Kness 
vice president, strategy and architectureT. Rowe Price Group Inc. 
Blogs are often a company's first attempt at leveraging Web 2.0 technology, said Robin Hopper, CEO of iUpload, a Burlington, Ontario-based blogging platform vendor. But many others are struggling to determine how to get into this space.

"Blogging seems to be the low-hanging fruit for them," Hopper said. "It seems to be the starting point. So far they're struggling with the Web 2.0 strategy, but blogs have the most history and seem the easiest concept to get around."

While the social aspect of Web 2.0 is a good opportunity for companies to build up their brands online, many experts are excited about what is happening inside companies. They say this is where a real Web 2.0 strategy starts.

In February 2005, Janet Maurice, webmaster for Cannondale Bicycle Corp., introduced a blogging platform to her company's Web site. The Bethel, Conn.-based bicycle manufacturer has seen a resurgence in its brand ever since.

"From the quantitative perspective, I can tell you that we've increased traffic to our sites by almost 50% in the last year," Maurice said. "People are coming in, they're reading, they're subscribing, they're talking about us on different forums and new groups and they're directing people back to our site to continue the conversation. Blogging encourages and fosters community. And when the general community is talking about your product and your brand in a positive way, it doesn't get any better than that."

Cannondale's employees blog on the company's Web site, too, and talk up new products, bicycle events, the latest technology in the industry and news about professional bicyclists. Customers can subscribe to the information they want to receive through Real Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds.

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"I think most companies right now are taking a tactical approach rather than a strategic approach to Web 2.0," said Dion Hinchcliffe, founder and CTO of Hinchcliffe & Company, a Web 2.0 consultancy in Alexandria, Va. "I hear companies say, 'We created a blog. We're doing Web 2.0.' Well, no one is reading it. They are being really timid and really tactical."

A Web 2.0 strategy should look like "inverted" business process re-engineering.

"Don't think about and create this big, top-heavy business process management initiative," Hinchcliffe said. "Invert it. Give the tools to your people, and they can automate and reinvent their processes. Let employees and customers and business partners generate a lot of ideas for the business. Let them re-engineer your business process in a controlled way."

Web 2.0 behind the firewall

With blogging clearly boosting her company's profile in the market, Maurice said her company is exploring the use of Web 2.0 technology behind the firewall -- meaning using collaboration tools within the company's intranet for use by employees only.

"When we talk about different technologies and where they may fit within our suite of solutions, wikis often come up," Maurice said. "Our engineers … are also considering using wikis to help them share ideas and concepts, but there are concerns that need to be addressed. Marketing will also be looking at using wikis for internal use worldwide."

Hinchcliffe said businesses can get into the process rather quickly by allowing blogs and wikis on their intranets. Access to these tools inside the intranet can create an "ecosystem for feedback," he added.

Taking Web 2.0 to the enterprise
Andrew McAfee, an associate professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, said one thing is clear about Web 2.0: Some very useful things can emerge from these new modes of collaboration.

McAfee, who claims to have coined the term Enterprise 2.0 to refer to the use of Web 2.0 technology within companies (and behind the firewall)  to improve collaboration, said this will be a business-driven phenomenon, rather than an IT-driven one, but IT will be essential to its success.

McAfee has five recommendations for IT managers:
  • Provide a forum or platform where employees can collaborate and communicate. McAfee noted that knowledge management systems enable this sort of activity already. But unlike the traditional knowledge management system, Enterprise 2.0 collaboration is employee-driven. Managers don't dictate the terms of that collaboration.
  • Set up an enterprise wiki and demonstrate it to influential people within the company to help drive interest in using it.
  • Set up internal blogs for all employees and incorporate them into internal directories so users can see who has a blog.
  • Try setting up an enterprise social bookmarking system so users can see what sort of content their colleagues are tagging on the Internet.
  • Be in on it from the beginning by making sure the right infrastructure is in place.
"By the classic measures of CIO performance, these are not attractive technologies," McAfee said. "They are not terribly expensive, so you don't need a big budget for them. And you don't need a lot of staff to maintain them. If a CIO is interested in fiefdom-building, these are not a good technology. If a CIO is interested in building new capabilities and helping the company do things they couldn't do before, these are fantastic technologies."
Kirk Kness, vice president of strategy and architecture at Baltimore-based financial services company T. Rowe Price Group Inc., spends a lot of time thinking about how his company can use a Web 2.0 technology within the business. Kness said his company is formulating a strategy with an eye toward rolling something out next year.

"In our industry we're pretty regulated and pretty conservative," Kness said. "But we believe there's something there. Most people who get hired into our call centers, they're used to this technology."

One of the first Web 2.0 technologies to make its way into Kness' company was Ajax, the programming method that allows Web sites and Web applications to update information without reloading a page. An Ajax-powered application inside a company like T. Rowe Price can save valuable time that employees might otherwise spend watching Web-based applications reload.

"We have a production system call center application, an IBM portal-based call center application using Ajax," Kness said. 'We're using it to get all kinds of real-time information. To get prices, related customers, lots of information in related portlets. When you call me, and I'm a representative, I want to look at your account details. Ajax goes out and gets the information without waiting for the screen refreshing. It's definitely solved problems associated with browsers-based, portal-based applications. You need the speed."

Kness said his goal is use Web 2.0 technology to make knowledge and expertise among his employees more "discoverable" by the entire business.

"I've got 30 different yellow sticky notes around my desk," Kness said. "That's not discoverable. What if I was doing all that online. What if that became discoverable?"

Innovative employees often figure out how to handle exceptions and new scenarios that aren't covered by standard processes. However, these employees often don't have the time or the means to communicate their innovated solutions to colleagues.

Kness said CIOs and architects who are planning to launch a Web 2.0 strategy should find the "knowledge activist" in their companies. Knowledge activists are the people who are enthusiastic about understanding how processes in the business work. They are the people who are constantly looking to innovate the way they do things. By putting tools like blogs and wikis in the hands of these people, business leaders will get their collaboration initiatives off to a fast start.

"I'm a big believer in scenario-driven architecture," Kness said. "For instance, when Katrina hit last year, there was all kind of new implications on our business, such as where do you keep your mail, etc. What do you do if someone who was affected by Katrina calls in? What if I could blog that. Blog it, and it's published in real time and it's out there. And what if someone had this great search engine with social bookmarking. Then it's out there and I can find it. "

Kness said Web 2.0 does present cultural challenges to a company, especially for senior management. Managers and executives will want to impose some sort of governance over all of this democratically generated content.

"There's going to be governances, but a different kind of governance," Kness said. "You can't lock it down, but you do have to make sure it goes in the right direction. It's very difficult to do. There's a reason why management is afraid to let go of control. We're highly regulated. There's a legitimacy to that [need for governance]. You have to pay attention to it. Mother it. That is the most difficult thing, but it doesn't stop me from thinking we should do this."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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