Corporate America wakes up to Web 2.0

Collaboration tools such as blogs and wikis are staking out ground inside businesses--and are often brought in by the end users themselves.

Big companies have for years installed industrial-strength content management systems in the hope of sparking collaboration among workers. There was just one problem: People didn't use them.

Now, tools that people are familiar with on the consumer Web, such as blogs and wikis, are staking out ground inside businesses, often led by the end users themselves.

Industry observers say these popular Web 2.0 technologies are an effective way to collaborate at work; they are simple and easy to use, making them very appealing to end users.

"The key part of Web 2.0 is that there is something about these new tools that enable new practices of collaboration," said John Seely Brown, a consultant and former chief scientist of Xerox, who spoke at the Collaborative Technology Conference in Boston last week. "Web 2.0 is a profoundly participatory medium."

Though it lacks a precise definition, Web 2.0 generally refers to Web services that let people collaborate and share information online. In contrast to the first generation of Web offerings, Web 2.0 applications are more interactive, giving people an experience more akin to a native desktop application as opposed to a static Web page.

Like others, Seely Brown expects to see a wide range of techniques common on consumer Web applications--including blogs, collaborative Web page editing through wikis, tagging and RSS (Really Simple Syndication)-based subscriptions--to bleed into mainstream business applications.

These Web 2.0 technologies won't necessarily replace complicated and more structured content or document management systems, analysts said.

But new Web standard products could push people to stop using e-mail to share documents and instead collaborate through shared workspaces like wikis.

"There's an incredible wave of open-source and often free software for collaboration and content management," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group.

"The onus is back on the incumbent providers, especially IBM and Microsoft, to (react). This stuff is beyond good enough, and it's easy to work with," he said.

Bottoms up
At consulting firm Ernst & Young, there is a controlled experiment going on with about 50 employees to use blogs, wikis and other Web 2.0 technologies to foster collaboration.

The idea of the "Web Office" is to allow knowledge workers to find information more easily, such as experts on a certain topic, and to manage ongoing projects, said Rod Boothby, a management consultant at the company.

Rather than define and then build a highly structured collaboration system, this project has a minimal amount of organization. For example, just a handful of blogs are dedicated to topics such as clients or projects.

"This way of capturing collaborative wisdom, collective knowledge is a different take on knowledge management, which was fundamentally flawed."
--Michael Rhodin, general manager, IBM's Lotus

Boothby said the project is still in its early days but he has noticed the blog and wiki approach hasn't been a replacement for the company's existing Lotus Notes collaborative applications. "It's added more value to Notes because people can find things," he said.

In another case, IBM is trying to apply tagging internally--something done on public Web sites such as Flickr or Delicious.

The "social bookmarking" system, called Dogear, will allow people inside IBM to categorize Web content and other material using user-suggested tags, said Michael Rhodin, the general manager of IBM's Lotus division, who spoke at the Collaborative Technology Conference last week. The company also has thousands of "dark blogs," viewable only by employees, which developers communicate with, he added.

Significantly, IBM chose not to define and then build a large-scale, sophisticated knowledge management system. Instead, the company is taking a bottoms-up approach, allowing contributors to have a more active hand in how collaborative work is organized.

Rhodin said the computing giant intends to commercialize these social-networking techniques and technologies.

"We see enormous applicability of this consumer stuff in enterprises and deriving value through social networking," Rhodin said. "This way of capturing collaborative wisdom, collective knowledge is a different take on knowledge management, which was fundamentally flawed."

Microsoft, too, is eyeing light-weight collaboration techniques. The company is using a wiki system in an internal communications system called Quests. And Microsoft will build a wiki into its SharePoint Server 2007 Web portal, O'Kelly noted.

Organic structure
But while giving end users more control to collaborate has the potential benefit of greater participation, industry observers warn against a free-for-all.

Businesses need some policies and oversight over how wikis, for example, are created, edited and phased out or they could end up with scattered and redundant information.

"The danger is if we don't consolidate these systems, we will have mutually inaccessible walled gardens...and those tools will die out," Andrew McAfee, an associate professor at the Harvard Business School, said at the Collaborative Technology Conference last week.

McAfee wrote an article published this Spring in the Sloan Management Review called Enterprise 2.0, which examines the use of Web 2.0 technologies inside corporations.

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