How to use weapons of mash construction

If you haven't tasted mash-ups you don't know your sausages

Web mash-ups are this week's networked nouvelle cuisine. Take two or more online services, link them together in an interesting way and present the result as a brand new idea. To date, most public mash-ups have centred around sites such as Google Maps, Flickr and Craigslist — adding geographical services or illustrations to listings services — but with companies such as Amazon and Yahoo making their internal systems available for use there's plenty of room for innovation.

Because it generally doesn't take that long to produce a mash-up using the latest Web application development tools such as Ruby on Rails — especially compared to usual ideas of big team, long-term project models &mdash there's an opportunity here for companies to encourage a spirit of experimentation. That may be mash-ups' most powerful benefit.

The lack of research and development in UK firms is deplorable; R&D is seen as expensive, difficult to manage and unlikely to be profitable. But with a modicum of Web skills, new ideas can be tried out online cheaply and quickly: Sturgeon's Law applies here as everywhere, yet if only one in ten attempts at something are worthwhile, let twenty people have a go. It doesn't take much to encourage those who already want to try.

You don't have to go as far as Google, whose employees spend 20 percent of their time in self-directed research; encouraging after-hours use of company systems on new ideas will be radical enough for most UK concerns. The very bold might even consider training in development for anyone who wants it.

Even if your company doesn't primarily work through the Internet, this is a valuable area to explore. A company's internal purchasing system could be linked to external comparative price engines, marketing information systems connected to RSS feeds filtered by the names of competitors or blog search engines seeded with the name of the chief executive. If an idea like this works, it may even go further; plenty of commercial products have come from successful concepts initially designed for internal use only.

It may seem against the normal rules of business to encourage employees to follow their noses, but even in the new world of mash-up business development one old rule applies. If you don't try, it's guaranteed not to happen.

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