The email killers

Information overload, multiple versions of the same file, over-enthusiastic spam filters, perpetually full inboxes… there are many reasons to dislike email.

JP Rangaswami, head of alternative market models and, until earlier this year, CIO of Dresdner Kleinwort, the investment bank (which recently shed the “Wasserstein” from the end of its name), is a big believer in the power of collaboration and removing information silos; as such, he worked to implement leading-edge technologies which can, for some tasks, replace email. 

“Email is now snail mail, no longer fit for purpose, although it served many glorious purposes for many years,” he writes in his blog, ConfusedOfCalcutta.com. For a richer dialogue than alternatives such as text messaging allow, he proposes new forms of collaboration tools: blogs and wikis, which “allow you to connect the conversation with the context”.

Blogs and wikis – often grouped together as “social software” – are self-publishing tools which require little training. A recent report by Forrester Research found two thirds of regular Internet users in the UK have heard of blogs – web journals that display strings of posts with the most recent at the top. But only a quarter read them, and just 7% have created one.

Less well known, wikis are web pages that anyone can add to or edit. As they keep an audit trail of all changes, they are well suited to the compliance-sensitive environment of an investment bank, and easier to manage than hundreds of emails. The theory is – much like open source software development – that if mistakes are made on a wiki, other readers can correct it.

At Dresdner Kleinwort, use of these email alternatives began in the IT department, but has since gone company-wide. Around 450 employees maintain blogs, half of them within the 1,400-person IT department. While not every post is relevant to the business of finance, conversations which might previously have gone no further than the watercooler can be more likely to result in an outcome. One blogger’s gripe, for example, about insufficient healthy food in vending machines elicited so many comments in agreement that the company changed its policy, and the food on offer.

Wikis have also been deployed to the rest of the organisation – with great success. The DrKWikipedia – named after the online encyclopaedia that remains the best-known example of a wiki – is put to a wide variety of uses, from planning meeting agendas or finalising marketing materials, to collecting a knowledge base on risk management, compliance or current projects for clients. Many of the pages would previously have existed on a centrally stored spreadsheet, where version control can be a problem.

Myrto Lazopoulou, head of user experience at Dresdner Kleinwort, has managed the wiki project since it went live in March 2005. At first, she was the only person populating it, which was “essential to add some content to motivate other users to visit and edit it,” she says. Then it was rolled out to the Digital Markets business unit (a tech-focused group of traders), and in May 2005, the whole company.

“We publicised it via email, but it was difficult to explain,” says Lazopoulou. “Unless they see the product people can’t understand what it is about.” The company’s intranet publicises the latest changes to wikis and blogs, with banner ads for popular destinations. But as well as most employees’ attachment to email, there were cultural barriers to uptake: for instance, business unit heads do not control a departmental wiki, nor are they held responsible for its content.

Adoption increased after speed improvements and the decision to use digital certificates to log in to DrKWikipedia, so there are no new usernames or passwords to remember. An easy-to-use interface also boosted uptake, although a separate interface – which can be faster, but takes more training – was retained for more experienced IT users. Image-free versions of the pages are even accessible from mobile devices like the BlackBerry.

“It’s extremely easy to change if you see something out of date,” says Lazopoulou, “rather than having to find the person responsible for changing something simple like a phone number that might take you a whole day to track down.” Now, 2,500 people actively use the wiki (almost half of the workforce). There are over 3,700 pages, to which 400 changes are made every week.

“The number of people editing is growing,” she says. “We get a lot of traffic to it which is just people wanting the latest version [of a file]. But for every 10 times they visit, they contribute – which is a pretty good ratio.” Indeed, it compares well with the ‘1% rule’ that public websites like Wikipedia and Yahoo Groups have identified: for every hundred visitors, just one will create new content, while another 10 will interact with it, for example by making comments or by offering improvements.

So a corporate wiki can be even more vibrant than those that cater to the mass market and personal interests. But has it, as Rangaswami hoped, reduced the company’s dependence on email? While inboxes have not been slashed completely, for projects where wikis are used actively, some users see a 75% reduction in email traffic. In place of emails, employees can keep track of updates to their favourite blogs and wikis using an open source RSS (really simple syndication) reader.  

Following the success of these tools internally, Dresdner Kleinwort is now launching customer-facing blogs, as well as making its research reports available on RSS feeds, which can be customised according to interest areas – thus exporting Rangaswami’s campaign for better information sharing to a much wider audience.

The impact of wikis on ECM systems  

As wikis are increasingly finding mainstream acceptance within many enterprises today, how should their content be managed?

While the simplicity of wikis is a big part of their appeal, it is also a potential weakness. Wikis contain only minimal functionality in managing the lifecycle of its content and because of similarities to enterprise content management (ECM) systems, which many companies already have in place, the features can often clash.

However, this is starting to change. “These technologies are not being ignored, and some vendors already have been incorporating them into their stack,” says Llewellyn Thomas, manager at consultancy BearingPoint. “We will see more of these technologies in the content stack, either integrated through partners or acquisitions in the future.”

ECM supplier Stellent has already incorporated blogs and wikis into its multi-site web content management framework. “In this way, organisations can leverage the same skills, processes and software to manage all of their websites — leading to a lower total cost of ownership and the ability to more effectively maintain consistent branding and security across all sites,” says Dan Ryan, Stellent’s executive vice president of marketing and business development.

However, Tony Byrne at advisory group CMS Watch points out that although wikis are slowly being incorporated into the ECM suites, many of the vendors have been slow to react. “This is forcing some customers to go with best-of-breed solutions instead, which complicates matters for the enterprise in the long-term,” he says.

While this is happening, there are steps that an organisation can take to protect content that has been authored in a wiki. Analyst group Gartner recommends positioning wikis as an authoring environment only, and when the document is complete a copy should be moved to a formal content repository.

Similarly, organisations should enforce policies regarding the use of sensitive or confidential information on wikis and clearly define the wiki’s place within the content environment, perhaps separating it completely from areas where content control is critical.

“The big challenge with wikis when they meet the corporate world is that there has to be some control,” says Larry Warnock, chief strategy officer at ECM vendor Vignette. “That is where content management comes in: the security and the life cycle control.”

However, Dresdner Kleinwort (see main article) has not experienced any vandalism, and has few controls over who can edit what. And indeed, Gartner’s analysts acknowledge that in spite of a few (well publicised) embarrassments, Wikipedia “demonstrates that a modicum of social convention can manage an ongoing ‘million-person per year’ project with no technical controls.” ‘Revision wars’ or disagreements over content often settle down faster than they would in offline situations, and vandalism is usually corrected quickly; social conventions and politeness will ensure that.

As such, even if the technologies do not fit into most corporate ECM systems quite yet, the concepts that drive the wikis’ popularity – easy uptake, informal workflows and open, socially governed spaces – are here to stay.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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