Web 2.0 Meets The Enterprise

Courtesy of Optimize

Depending on your perspective, Web 2.0 is either the latest fad, old ideas in new packaging, or a real change in thinking that business and IT executives need to take very seriously. My vote is for the third perspective.

An umbrella term for an emerging core of technologies, trends, and principles, Web 2.0 is not only changing what's on the Web, but also how it works. Many believe that CIOs who understand these new applications and technologies—and apply the benefits early on—stand to greatly improve internal business processes. Among the biggest advantages is better collaboration with customers, partners, and suppliers, as well as among internal users.

Some insist the current trends are merely the maturation of older, existing Web technologies. I believe a new and different phase of Web technologies is under way. In either case, Web sites are morphing into Web applications with live views of data in which the contributions of users are just as important as those of producers.

It's a perfect time to help the business embrace new IT approaches. "If you realize your job is to empower smart people in your organization," says Angel.com's Sam Aparicio, VP of products and strategy, "then you'll look at what's being adopted in the consumer [market] and think about how that can benefit your organization." For this to happen, CIOs must become forward-looking risk-takers, he says. The potential upside is a transformation in the way an organization uses—and benefits from—the Web.

Last year, O'Reilly Media CEO Tim O'Reilly outlined some key characteristics of Web 2.0 sites. Among them:

  • The ability to tap into the collective intelligence of users. The more users contribute, the more popular and valuable a Web 2.0 site becomes.
  • Making data available in new or never-intended ways. Web 2.0 data can be remixed or "mashed up," often through Web-service interfaces, much the way a dance-club DJ mixes music.
  • The presence of lightweight programming models that let nearly anyone act as a developer.
  • The virtual elimination of software-upgrade cycles by making everything a perpetual beta or work in progress, and by allowing rapid prototyping using the Web as a platform.

In this model, code doesn't have to follow rigid revision patterns, but is accepted as a constant upgrade. And when everyone can do a little programming as needed—or, better yet, when someone else does the work for you—the definition of developer or programmer changes, too.

Perhaps the most convincing reason to get on board with new Web technologies is this: IT executives who missed or ignored such disruptive technologies as the wildfire spread of mobile devices are now scrambling as handheld synchronization and mobile-application capabilities become standard business requirements. Unlike last time, when IT was forced to adapt as new technologies came in through the back door, CIOs can now bring the benefits of Web 2.0 technologies in through the front door, leaping to the front of the innovation curve.

CIOs need to understand which resources and silos of services or data they have available, then determine how to integrate them. Systems can be married using lightweight programming languages and data feeds, such as XML and RSS. This isn't as much about building or buying specific systems as it is about what can happen when data is made accessible to business users in new ways.

For guidance, CIOs can look to a variety of Web 2.0 innovations. Among them are Yahoo's bookmark-sharing and tagging Web site Del.icio.us; photo-sharing applications, such as Flickr, also owned by Yahoo; Google's Web-based Gmail service, which creates an almost desktop-client feeling; and social-networking services like LinkedIn. These and other sites let people get information the way they want it, when they want it.

For CIOs, new Web technologies offer an opportunity to educate others about the technical and social implications of software and to rethink their own role in the organization.

The three most popular Web 2.0 technologies—wikis, blogging, and mash-ups—are discussed here, but they're just the start of many new models emerging.

What's up with wikis?

Wikis—from the Hawaiian phrase "Wiki-wiki," meaning quick or fast—started as a way to make simple, editable Web pages available so that every visitor could be both a reader and an author. On the old Web, content is created and published by its owner, then made available to the rest of the world in read-only form. Wikis break this model by blurring the line between creator and consumer. The best-known wiki-generated example is Wikipedia, an encyclopedic, open-source body of knowledge to which anyone can contribute. But wikis can have business applications, too.

At SAP, Jeff Nolan, a director of marketing and customer operations, recently managed a Web-site design job where his team collaborated with the outside firm using a Socialtext-hosted wiki to define, manage and then archive the project. Nolan's team could also use the wiki to post requirements, files, and questions, build meeting agendas, track meeting notes, attach relevant documents, and then have members of the outside graphics firm see and answer that content. All this was done in shared space. No one had to receive or send an E-mail message, and anyone could simply view the wiki and get a clear understanding of the project's status—without using corporate storage systems or programming resources.

Another company using wikis as a central communications tool is Angel.com, a subsidiary of MicroStrategy Inc., which creates integrated voice response (IVR) and call center automation software. The sales team uses a wiki to log daily lead counts, post partnership information, and read documents posted by product management and marketing. These groups then use the wiki to publish position papers, marketing collateral, messaging, and scripts for customer inquiries. Like SAP, the internal consulting group uses the wiki to track projects. It's also shared with select customers. In one instance, the wiki helped the company cope with the 14-hour time difference it had with an Australian client.

Wikis also help the sales team at QAD Inc., a supplier of enterprise software for manufacturing. The team wanted to generate proposals for customers and post them on the Web, but also wanted to work offline. Jim Kirkley, the CTO, selected Jot Spot for its ability to import Word documents, providing a kind of offline proposal-creation mode. Then the QAD technology team created a tool that divides a Word document according to heading levels, then attaches each section to a different wiki page, allowing a salesperson to decide which pages to display. To share all or part of the document with a customer, a QAD salesperson E-mails a link for the wiki to the customer. Any comment or question is attached to the wiki page, and the software sends an RSS or E-mail message to the salesperson, who can also view the proposal in a dashboard interface with all of the history. Salespeople can answer questions and have a dialogue with customers right in the sales document. (For more on wikis as an E-mail alternative, see the side bar "Wikis Pick Up Where E-Mail Falls Short" at bottom)

Blogging for business

Blogs started out as journaling and personal publishing tools, but enterprises are now experimenting with these flexible systems so team members can publish items that were formerly sent as E-mail to "cc: My Whole Division." These feeds can be captured by newsreader clients using RSS or ATOM, two simple text formats published by many Web sites, blogging tools, and wikis. Users subscribe to the feeds and receive results in a common Web browser or customized reader application. For example, Microsoft says its Windows Vista operating system will feature the native ability to use RSS. Feed subscribers can be more selective about what they receive than users of traditional E-mail. For example, rather than download entire articles, they can first see just headlines and summaries.

For SAP's Nolan, blogging has been a change for the better. Until recently, SAP would pay a clipping service to collect relevant news stories, then E-mail the articles to large groups. Now, Nolan uses Six Apart's Movable Type Weblog system to send news articles to field staff. SAP's blog also acts as a central source for competitive data, with field personnel contributing content. Their commenting, tagging, and data create a virtual conversation around the way the team works—far better than a stream of "FYI" E-mailed articles. And because the blog is field-generated, its content is highly relevant. As Nolan puts it, the blog's true value is "not so much saving money, but improving the depth of competitive news."

IT's role is to build, install, and maintain the blog service on company Web servers. Because many blogging tools are available as open-source implementations, there may be code-maintenance issues. Further, software companies that include Six Apart are taking the enterprise's needs in mind with new products designed to run inside the corporate firewall. In these cases, IT can interact with the software developer/supplier to effect changes and upgrades on a real-time basis and not be subject to an artificial schedule. IT can also work on implementing plug-ins or enterprise-specific hooks for internal data streams.

Blog servers don't require as many dedicated resources as an enterprise intranet collaboration platform—think SharePoint or Notes—while serving many of the same functions. The shift to lightweight platforms can free up IT hardware and support resources for use in other areas, helping to lower support costs and license fees for systems that may no longer serve the needs of users.

Mix and mash

Bolder still are mash-up sites that mix and match content from two or more sites to create something entirely new. For example, a whole class of sites takes map data from Google Maps and overlays additional information from a number of disparate sources, blending it all to create something new. One example is ChicagoCrime.org, which combines maps from Google with current crime data to provide a browsable database of crimes reported in Chicago. Google lets these mash-ups happen by making the map data open and available via programming interfaces.

At Instant Information, a software firm that provides collaboration software and services to financial-services companies, CTO John Mahoney noticed that his customers needed to help their analysts, researchers, and traders more efficiently manage the large volume of information coming to them. Instead of offering a traditional spoke/hub solution, Mahoney's team created Touchpoint, a product that lets users manage, organize, and discuss financial data they receive. It also lets users tag data, filter it, set triggers, and store it so they can easily retrieve or share the information. Touchpoint users can repackage and republish data by using a feature built into the system. A growing number of users are republishing the information to external clients.

Data tagging is key to Touchpoint. It's also the premise behind Del.icio.us, a site that lets public users store and share Web bookmarks. Once content is properly tagged, it can be found easily by others, commented on, collected, or improved by the group. More important, tagged data can be combined with other data using application programming interfaces and then easily published to either internal or external client systems. Users don't need to know they're using APIs or doing mash-ups or programming. For them, it's a way to get Web content the way they want it.

Another area that's likely to impact traditional IT shops is the way Web 2.0 eliminates upgrades in favor of a perpetual beta-test modality. In effect, everything is a work in progress. Because of this, Web 2.0 offers many good—and bad—examples of quick and dirty implementation projects. Surprisingly, some of these developer-generated rush jobs look great and have wonderful usability.

Interface design is also undergoing a transformation due to new Web 2.0 tools like Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (Ajax). Learning this Web 2.0 coding means getting trained on widely adopted standards, including Cascading Style Sheets, Document Object Model, JavaScript, and XML. While there's some additional learning for developers whenever browsers change or upgrade, relying on these standards will help reduce the number of application changes required.

Changes are made only on the server, whereas users experience them in the browser whenever the added functionality shows up. This was the original promise of Java Applets in the browser, but now it's working and available.

Developers using Ajax tools have produced such consumer sites as Gmail, Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing, and Microsoft's Live.com site. These look more like desktop applications than Web sites, with quick refreshes instead of long waits for page loads. Features previously seen only on Flash-enabled pages are now common. And since much of the code is open, developers can experiment with the new technology freely. In fact, the Eclipse Foundation, with a contribution of code from IBM, recently made the alpha version of an Ajax toolkit generally available.

For companies building external-facing applications, Web 2.0 tools can cut testing for different browser configurations. Coding in this way means application-development teams can pick and choose which components to customize and maintain, and which ones to buy or find via open source.

The technologies are proliferating. It's now up to CIOs to find ways to adapt them for business value.

Howard Greenstein is senior director of the Center for Management at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. He's on the board of the New York Software Industry Association.

Sidebar: Wikis Pick Up Where E-Mail Falls Short

CIOs might get the impression that Web 2.0 is about cutting IT departments out of the loop. But IT has an important role to play by introducing collaborative tools that can trim the overwhelming volume of business E-mail.

Most "FYI" E-mail messages are nothing but distractions; Gartner analysts call them "occupational spam." But even when E-mail between small groups is relevant, timely, and valuable, the information often isn't useful to the organization as a whole. Here's where wikis can help. They can change the virtual location for enterprise communications from corporate servers and storage devices to public forums.

A business wiki gathers and stores content that corporate users can view whenever they're ready. In addition to lowering the frequency of distracting, spur-of-the-moment E-mail and instant messages, it maximizes distribution and participation.

In product development, for example, an early R&D idea may be posted to a corporate wiki. Then, all associated departments that participate in or observe the process can add specific research results and emergent ideas.

Commercial wiki products keep track of who entered which online discussion and when, allowing work flow to be observed. From a regulatory and compliance perspective, this enhances accountability. More important, it helps make E-mail overload a thing of the past.

Online Only Sidebar: Exec Blogging: Harder Than It Sounds

Once a company gets comfortable with blogs internally, the next step is to go public. Ideally, these blogs will be written by top executives. Current examples include General Motors vice chairman Bob Lutz, Stonyfield Farm CEO Gary Hirshberg, and Edelman PR CEO Richard Edelman—all regular bloggers.

But CEO blogging remains rare, says Shel Israel, co-author of Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk With Customers (Wiley, 2006). One of the most frequent questions Israel hears is, "How can I get my CEO to blog?" His answer: Don't force it. Instead, leave the blogging to someone with a true passion for it. If that happens to be a senior executive, great. For example, Jonathan Schwartz, CEO of Sun Microsystems, is candid and passionate about his products in his public blog, and he encourages blogs internally as well.

Unfortunately, many C-level executives will find maintaining a blog quite difficult. For one, they're simply too busy—especially to maintain and respond. Letting others "ghostblog" for them probably isn't a good idea; a ghosted blog is likely to seem contrived, which will only reduce credibility with already-fickle customers.

Even if the CEO or CIO is willing, there are public-relations problems to address. Many execs have been thoroughly trained to avoid making any dramatic or specific statements in public. As a result, their bland blog content is likely to disappoint Web-savvy readers, who expect blogs that are bold and forthcoming.

Further, legal and securities issues limit what a corporate officer can convey publicly. When blog content moves toward operations, product cycles, or other things that could be tied to a financial disclosure, there's potential trouble. If a blog is only about customer service and products, the problem is avoided; this is Lutz's approach.

Whoever writes the blogs, CIOs need to support the effort. For example, a CIO might call or write a product or marketing manager and see if he or she needs help with a corporate blogging tool. Supporting a test and showing willingness to adopt a blog platform will give the CIO credibility and show leadership in this area.

Sidebar: Action Plan

Remember when mobile devices took IT by storm and forced you to scramble just to keep up? If you're not careful, Web 2.0 could do likewise. This time around, get ahead of the innovation curve and find out how Web 2.0's new tools can help your organization. Here's a plan to get started.

  • Explore collaboration Consider whether your corporate culture is ready to experiment with public collaboration tools. Work with your corporate-learning or organizational-development department to find areas likely to experiment. Start small: Determine whether a collaborative tool would benefit a team or group working on a specific project. Marketing groups are often good first targets for information-sharing with others, as they're usually the ones tasked with sharing corporate information.
  • Consider Ajax Ask your users if they'd benefit from an Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (Ajax) interface in a new system project. There will be some complexity, as Web 2.0 applications are created differently from their 1.0 predecessors. Most likely, developers will need some training. But the added usability and future-proofing should make the effort worthwhile.
  • Brainstorm Try establishing a wiki for a team's collaborative project. Some wikis are hosted on an internal server, while others are available as open source or via a hosted service. Brainstorm how your organizational structure, as opposed to its rules, can be used to encourage participation. Remember, brainstorming is part and parcel of Web 2.0's inclusive spirit. Let all users contribute to the greater good.
  • Develop an alternative to E-mail Look for opportunities to reduce E-mail volume by installing and testing a wiki or a blog system. Train and encourage employees to write wiki entries rather than send "cc:" and "FYI" E-mail messages.
  • Try RSS or ATOM feeds Provide public RSS or ATOM feeds of press releases, product updates, and other company information now sent as mass E-mailings or newsletters. If customers react positively, do more. Ask your marketing, product management, and PR departments whether there are regular corporate data feeds that could be released in RSS format for users to capture and reuse. Also, discuss whether customers would read more of your company's Web site on a regularly updated blog to which they could subscribe. Would they read even more if they received the articles via a newsreader client instead of by E-mail?
  • Create production systems Once you've completed these experiments, create production systems using Web 2.0 tools that increase their value the more users contribute. Work with end users to ensure that your development model includes them in the process. Design or purchase tools that let end users mash up data, add value, and manipulate data the way they want it, when they want it.