The phenomenon known as the blogosphere, the particular region of cyber-space occupied by bloggers, is extremely self-aware. Bloggers are very conscious of the fact they are pioneering a relatively new, but already enormously popular, communication medium which, according to blog-watcher Technorati, now numbers more than 55 million.
The meaning, purpose and uses of blogs in general, and quite often the blog in question, are common topics of blog postings, indicating a social medium that is still pondering the meaning of its own existence. In the past two years, however, blogs have made the cross-over from the realm of popular culture into the corporate world, throwing up even more questions as to what, exactly, is the true function of a blog.
Microsoft, for instance, has more than 2,000 current and former employee bloggers, according to Microsoft Watch, one of whom, Robert Scoble, draws a readership of millions to his plain-speaking, if dubiously, titled blog, Scobleizer.
IBM too boasts an internal blog facility, Blog Central, with more than 12,000 users, and it’s not only the techies blazing a trail. Even the tight-lipped investment banking community has seen fit to adopt the geek chic blogging badge. London and Frankfurt-based investment bank, Dresdner Kleinwort, for example, has more than 450 internal blogs. It also hosts TelcoTech, the investment banking community’s “first ever external blog”, according to blogging enthusiast JP Rangaswami, the bank’s former CIO.
Rangaswami, now CIO of BT Global Services, is, however, one of the few senior IT executives in the business community currently posting frequent blogs. While some CEOs and employees lower down the food chain have readily embraced the concept of blogging, the upper echelons of IT still remain, perhaps ironically, behind the blogging curve. “CIOs aren’t on the leading edge of culture and are often late adopters of technology,” argues Will Weider, CIO of US Ministry Health Care and Affinity Healthcare Systems and a frequent blogger. “It’s probably a bit of a stereotype, but that’s what I see.”
Conservatism when it comes to technology is one explanation. But the other is simpler: CIOs have so far failed to recognise how their involvement in blogging can deliver significant value to their organisation. Moreover, many fear the practice will raise their profile higher than they might desire. According to professional business blogger Dennis Howlett of the AccMan Pro blog, the situation reflects the cultural and political issues that surround the positions at the top of IT management as a whole.
“Too many CIOs see their jobs as ‘how do I avoid getting fired’. It’s only in the last couple of years that they’ve been able to return to the boardroom table with a degree of respect, for the simple reason there was so much overspending, plus a lot of over-promising.”
“It’s like saying, ‘if the CIO had a barbeque once a week, would it make a difference?’ Of course it would.”
Overburdened with expectations and project backlogs, CIOs often claim they simply do not have the time to devote to an online journal, which could land them in trouble. Jeremy Wright, author of the book Blog Marketing, and former CIO, argues however that such perceived obstacles are more a matter of delusion than reality.
“We think we’re more important than we are, and we think we’re busier than we are – we think we’re too above it,” he contends, adding: “There also hasn’t really been a high profile CIO to carry the flag, to show the value. So there is a lack of someone stepping into the space and being a premier CIO blogger.”
Nonetheless, there are now a few intrepid individuals emerging, clearly armed with superior time-management skills, who are willing to carry the flag into the blogosphere. And for those who do follow, they suggest, there are numerous business – and personal – benefits.
As Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon.com, argues, blogs offer a unique facility to produce and consume writings. “The structure of a stream of time-tagged postings is a very convenient format to write in and for readers to find new information. Combine that with comment facilities, trackbacks and feed aggregators and you end up with a worldwide decentralised information system that enables global conversations.”
Both internally and externally such conversations can prove highly valuable to organisations, allowing transparent dialogues between participants that are, by their technical nature, more inclusive than other communication mechanisms. Email, for instance, allows parallel, hidden conversations, while any email trail can easily be deleted or new team members excluded from historical information.
Blogs, on the other hand, allow fully visible, chronological development of debates to which employees can contribute in a non-confrontational manner, thereby cutting directly through vertical hierarchies.
The medium also allows the dissemination of information which facilitates faster and more efficient problem-solving. Pablo Molina, CIO of Georgetown University Law Center Campus in Washington DC, has used his blog to enable the collective negotiation of departmental problems, such as personnel realignment and the potential suspension of Blackberry services.
Others take the notion of a blog as communications tool further. Phil Windley, former CIO for the state of Utah (blog), elected to start a blog to enhance his leadership effectiveness across a highly dispersed IT environment: “The state of Utah had 900 IT workers spread among 25 to 30 agencies. I wanted them to understand what I did and my thinking [on various business issues]. I tried a variety of things – we had a monthly newsletter for employees, for instance – but blogging was a way for me to write what I was thinking and get almost instant feedback, and see what they were thinking. People now understood my point of views better.”
Internally, blogging of this kind has a real impact on corporate cultures. Microsoft, IBM, and Intel have all benefited from improved transparency, inclusiveness, and more open communication, claims Wright, who is adamant blogging holds the power to fundamentally alter business relations. “It’s like saying ‘if the CIO had a barbecue once a week, would that make a difference?’ Of course it would.”
As a virtual barbeque, an internal blog allows the CIO to present a more personable, informal front to his staff, while external blogs operate on a more elevated, detached level. Many CIO/CTO bloggers – Vogels, Weider and Rangaswami included – have found that their blogs, which are open to the entire worldwide web, have allowed them to build a personal brand that transcends their official positions. “There is a bit of self-promotion in what I do,” Weider confesses. “It’s been very helpful to me. I’ve met with people I would never have met with.”
Such recognition within the technical community however, naturally complicates the representational quality of the blog. After all, whose blog is it anyway? “I believe that for someone in my position there are no separate personas,” Vogels argues. “Even though I have tried in the past to make it clear my blog is a personal activity, it is read by many people all over the world as the weblog of the CTO of Amazon.com.”
The fact that Vogels regularly discusses issues relating to his employer probably does not help correct this misconception, and his complaint highlights the dilemma IT leaders face in terms of the content they should include. The value of a blog, suggests Richard Yeo, CTO of Fish4, the local advertisement site, will be its clarity of purpose and persistence.
Achieving traction, he adds, “requires a lot of momentum”, and for this reason senior IT executives should think carefully about what they want to achieve when starting a blog.
The value however, is undoubtedly there if they have the time, the inclination and the will to find a voice, and deploy the blog – as with all communication tools – in the right context.
Richard Yeo, CTO at Fish4
Blog: The diary of a CTO
Yeo started blogging periodically in June 2006, prompted by a project he was overseeing at Fish4, the cars, homes and jobs small ads website. “People come to the site for jobs and they have to register their CVs. We were exploring if their blog could become like their CV. As an ‘Internet expert’ I thought I should get out there and start blogging myself,” Yeo explains.
According to Yeo, his blog, which carries the strapline, ‘The day in the life of a CTO’, remains in its experimental stages, offering insights into the challenges he encounters during his various projects. This site comes with a warning sticker for vendors, however. With blog entries entitled, “Shame on Microsoft and Sybase for writing such badly performing JDBC drivers!!!”, Yeo evidently has no qualms about publicly rebuking any suppliers who let him down.
In this vein Yeo also uses the blog as a forum in which to vent frustrations on other work related issues, sometimes posting missives about the shortcomings of members of his team (but without citing names, of course).
Werner Vogels, CTO at Amazon.com
Blog: All things distributed
A hardened blogger, Vogels has been prominent within the blogosphere since 2003, when he was acting as a research scientist at Cornell University. Originally created with the intention of discussing the issues involved in “building scalable and robust distributed systems”, the blog has grown in the past three years to encompass a range of topics including ‘Travels’, ‘Sport’, and ‘New Media’.
There is even a subsection afforded the arguable title ‘Humour’, in which the reader can find entries commenting on his love of online comics.
Although Vogels blogs in a personal capacity, his ecommerce employer is the subject of a significant number of blog-inches, and enjoys its own subsection. Vogels openly comments on Amazon.com’s business strategy and technological projects, as well as recounting lunch-meetings in which he admonishes his fellow diners for advocating Amazon.com adopt a corporate blog. “Beyond ‘a more human face’ and ‘conversations with individuals from Amazon’ there was no real response how blogging will make the product named Amazon.com better for our customers,” he complains.
JP Rangaswami, CIO for BT Global Services
Blog: Confused of Calcutta
Despite its self-deprecating title, JP Rangaswami’s blog is anything but an exercise in confusion. With boundless confidence it tackles an array of subjects, moving seamlessly from posts on the poetry of Dylan Thomas to ‘An aside about region coding of DVDs’.
Having gained a significant and devoted following in less than a year, Rangaswami is able to use his blog as an exploratory tool, garnering informed contributions from his varied readership in order to solve problems and indulge curiosities.
Lengthy and erudite discussions regularly stem from Rangaswami’s posts, prompting revelations that sometimes feel a little self-aware. “I read voraciously. Maybe 10 books a week,” he tells his readers in a blog found under the subheading ‘Books I’m reading’, adding: “Usually in parallel rather than in sequence, covering a variety of subjects.”
Enjoying something of a cult following, Rangaswami’s blog has spawned its own vitriolic copycat, published under the pseudonym Roboswami. The blog’s strapline, which includes the adage ‘Evil requires nothing, only that good people do nothing’, suggests imitation is not always proof of flattery.
The blog wisdom of JP Rangaswami
“Blogs are conversations. Between friends.”
“The provisional aspect of blogs extends beyond statements and views and reaches into questions and searches and finds.”
“… blogs are conversational and relational, not transactional.’
“I don’t understand why someone would blog if that someone wasn’t interested in what other people said and what common AND different interests the others had. It’s part of the point of blogging. Wisdom-of-crowds meets madness-of-crowds and emergence and serendipity and network effects.”
Will Weider, CIO of Ministry Health Care and Affinity Health Systems, Wisconsin.
Blog: The Candid CIO
Enjoying a high profile in healthcare circles across the US, Weider deploys his blog as a forum in which to share what he has learnt through his “mistakes and other crazy things in the life of a healthcare CIO”. During his career, he explains, “I’ve developed ideas and principles, mostly through making a lot of mistakes, and I had a desire to share them with people.”
Established since 2003, Weider’s blog has explored only those issues related directly to his work, including software selection, CIO junkets and cold calls, or “the bane of my existence”, as he dubs them. According to Weider, his blog offers a space in which to pursue debates as the “best way to shape arguments”.
True to his blog’s name Weider does not shrink from exposing vendors’ shortcomings. When discussing how people arrive at his blog, for example, Weider comments: “I had to laugh out loud when I saw one person arrived here by searching ‘I hate Meditech’ on MSN’s search engine. I can only wonder what caused such an action. BTW, I am ranked 6th on that search.”
Further reading in Information Age
The email killers – August 2006