THE Internet is evolving, and finally showing signs of delivering some of the interactivity that has been promised since its inception. At the forefront of this evolution are technologies like weblogs (online diaries usually referred to as ‘blogs’) and wikis (a web page that anyone can edit).
Both make use of very simple software which makes updating and editing easy. A blog appears as a single column of text with the most recent entries at the top of the web page. Wikis may look more complicated and have more material online, but as anyone can add or amend content, it pools the wisdom and resources of anyone who views it. The name comes from the Hawaiian word for “quick” – inventor Ward Cunningham designed them as a speedy way to share information.
Noise from the ‘blogosphere’ (blogging community) reached a new pitch in 2004, in part thanks to those wishing to voice their opinions on the US presidential election. The most prominent public wiki, meanwhile, remains the Wikipedia – an online reference site, three times the size of Encyclopaedia Britannica, compiled by over 10,000 regular contributors and edited by any of its registered readers.
Following their popularity with private individuals, these technologies are now being adopted by companies who want to want to open up corporate communication to all levels of employee for a more ‘horizontally’ integrated workforce. The productivity benefits of having more knowledgeable and motivated employees are obvious.
Variously categorised as social software, collaborative working or knowledge management tools, blogs and wikis have proven to be highly adaptable, improving the presentation of information, and releasing the latent value of existing communications like email.
Public blogs can put a human face on a company or make announcements directly to customers – then gauge their reaction. Wikis are most commonly used for internal knowledge bases or project communication, their content continually improved with participants’ experience.
Readers can keep tabs on updates to blogs and wikis using RSS (Really Simple Syndication). These XML feeds deliver the latest postings on user-selected sites to one central point, such as a personalised web page or into a mail client like Outlook.
The Rules of Corporate Blogging
° Appoint a champion to lead by example.
° Keep criticism constructive.
° Stay on topic – but not necessarily on-message.
° Clearly define the role of blogs and wikis in relation to other communications mechanisms – make sure they serve a specific need.
° Use a testing ground for comments on potential innovations.
° Be authentic and develop a recognisable voice to engage readers and encourage a conversation. Individuals write blogs, not marketing departments.
° Start low-profile, perhaps behind the firewall or a password entry, until confidence, tone and a body of content are established.
° Tell the truth, publish bad news as well as good and admit mistakes.
° Remember the difference between blogs and wikis: one person writes a blog and others reply, but everybody writes a wiki together. Wikis are therefore more objective, while blogs should be opinionated.
° Never delete a blog post or (relevant) replies.
° Although only around 5% of the online populace regularly reads blogs, Forrester Research likens the current situation to the mid-1990s, when companies were beginning to launch their own websites. Analysts predict readership (predominantly young and male today) and applications will change as more corporate blogs appear. Forrester even envisions a day when all new employees are given a blog URL alongside their phone number and email address.
° In the wiki marketplace, Gartner observes the current dominance of open source products, which include MediaWiki, TWiki, MoinMoin and WikkiTikkiTavi. However, it notes that “the commercialisation of wiki products has now begun”, as outfits like Socialtext and Atlassian Software Systems seek to make money from wikis. Gartner also expects that by 2006, a third of e-workplace suppliers like IBM and Microsoft will have begun to incorporate wiki-like functionality into products like content management systems and team collaboration software. Indeed, Microsoft now employs wiki inventor Ward Cunningham.
Barriers and Risks
THE most significant barrier to corporate adoption of blogs and wikis is a psychological one. With wikis, the problem is not getting people to read them but to realise that they can and should edit them too. For blogs, there can be a fear of the candour and honesty which the pages encourage – though this can be their most rewarding feature.
When Six Apart, creator of publishing software Movable Type, proposed unpopular licensing changes on its corporate blog, hundreds of irate users posted replies on its site.
But Six Apart managed to turn this around by making changes in line with constructive criticism. When these were published on the blog, the feedback was all the more positive for the company having listened to its users.
Similarly, although allowing employees to voice their opinions freely can have many benefits, there will always be exceptions. A Delta airlines flight attendant was suspended without pay for inadvertently identifying the airline which was the subject of her semi-fictional, unauthorised blog.
The attendant protested, noting the absence of any mention of blogging in company guidelines. The lesson for other enterprises: establish a clear corporate policy on both internal and external blogging, encompassing security, liability, intellectual property and confidentiality concerns.
But if such web pages are to ever sit at the centre of the corporate community, their content must be reliable. As wikis are so easy to edit, vandalism or errors are never preventable – but they are simple to fix. In this case, cure is better than prevention: appoint moderators to monitor the wiki regularly.
Bloggers have an opposite problem: to continue populating the site with fresh posts after the first few months’ enthusiasm. Incentives may be required to sustain input.
“No more comments from the pundits ‘in context’. Now you get them straight from me.” Sun COO Jonathan Schwartz describes why he started a blog.
“95% of IT expenditure in companies supports business processes. Almost nothing goes into the social fabric.” John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox believes social software can exploit an untapped area of expertise.
“Blogs are a good example of how organisations can express themselves from the bottom up, making connections with peers that might not occur through other channels.” Meta Group analyst Mike Gotta predicts social software will create competitive advantage by “getting people on the same page”.
“A wiki is really a substitute for a group email. 90% of collaboration and 75% of a company’s knowledge assets exist in emails, but there is no value for the organisation apart from what people produce from the information.” Ross Mayfield, CEO and founder of wiki vendor SocialText.
° Sun Microsystems president and COO Jonathan Schwartz is one of the more vocal bloggers in the IT community and a good example of how blogs can be both an effective marketing tool – thanks to his outspoken opinion on Sun’s rivals – and engaging to customers and employees. Read it at blogs.sun.com/jonathan/
° Macromedia, the application development tools company, brought product evangelists’ private blogs in-house then they realised the value of the “straightforward, honest and direct” dialogue with customers. “The blog format didn’t have a corporate feel,” says Andi Hindle, Macromedia’s European product manager. “It quickly became apparent that this was a really good way to communicate in an informal and interactive way.” Check Dreamweaver “community manager” and Macromedia employee Matt Brown’s blog at radio.weblogs.com/0106884/.
° Oneup.com, a videogames news website, was suffering from “occupational spam”: up to 100 internal group emails a day. A Socialtext wiki has reduced that to less than one a week. It saved $1 million by shaving a month off a four-month software project.
Blogging tools and services:
Six Apart – www.movabletype.org, www.typepad.com and www.livejournal.com
Blogger – www.blogger.com
Radio Userland – radio.userland.com
Microsoft “Spaces” – spaces.msn.com
Technorati (blog ratings) – www.technorati.com
Wiki tools and services:
Socialtext – www.socialtext.com
Jotspot – www.jotspot.com
Xwiki – www.xwiki.com
Bloglines – www.bloglines.com
My Yahoo! – my.yahoo.com
NewsGator – www.newsgator.com
FeedDemon – www.bradsoft.com/feeddemon
Pluck – www.pluck.com
Other research on social computing:
IBM – www.research.ibm.com/SocialComputing
Microsoft – research.microsoft.com/scg