Buoyed by media hype, popularity of Internet startups, and some interesting success stories, Weblogs (more commonly referred to as "blogs") are burgeoning across the Internet as a means to improve social conversation and networking. Strategists should assess business, organizational, and technological implications of "blogging" (and social computing in general) before chasing another tool under the allure of improved information/expertise sharing, collaboration, and community building.
META Trend: Throughout 2004, organizational productivity strategies will drive the integration of knowledge and human capital management efforts into a holistic program to improve workplace performance and innovation (WPI). Focusing on the connections of people to teams, communities, process, and information in evolving workplaces will become a vital discipline for adaptive organizations by 2005. Knowledge management methods and practices will become critical for blending business processes and social networks to maximize enterprise productivity and drive competitive advantage through 2008.
In the mid-1990s, the Web exploded onto the corporate scene, taking virtually everyone by surprise by its rapid adoptions. Organizations struggled to establish governance, policies, procedures, and technology directions. It took awhile for organizations to properly understand the implications of the Web and apply best practices to take advantage of its value (e.g., transforming channel, relationship, process, information, and product strategies). One of the next post-Web waves decision makers must prepare for is “social computing”.
Interest in social computing is being driven by the continued extension and virtualization of work, workforces, work associations, and the workplace itself, as well as the blurring of boundaries between work and lifestyle needs (see WCS Delta 931). Context and trust are critically important (e.g., identity, presence, culture, privacy), as is the ability to visualize and comprehend within a virtual environment (e.g., cognition of activities and structures to sense “meaning” [mental models] around work practices and social interactions). From an academic perspective, much of the research into social computing (e.g., social capital, social software, social network analysis) is based on anthropology (e.g., ethnography), sociology, ergonomics, and organizational development (e.g., psychology; learning from observing; revealing based on trust, tribalism, human motivation, and behavior).
Social computing is not new. For years, organizations have deployed other tools such as e-mail, instant messaging, and discussion forums under various names (e.g., computer-supported collaborative work, groupware, peer-to-peer). What has changed is the world around it, causing social computing to become something cohesive (an emergent trend) and lowering many of the barriers to how people socialize via the following:
However, the area has caught the attention of many educational institutions as well as software heavyweights. Social computing is also an area actively being researched by both IBM (www.research.ibm.com/SocialComputing) and Microsoft (http://research.microsoft.com/scg), though products are not on any current road map for the next two years.
Microsoft has demonstrated “Wallop,” a tool that enables users to author lightweight content online and build conversations around the shared content in the context of their social networks (the functionality of blogs, RSS [RDF Site Summary], wikis, and social networks rolled into one application). IBM demonstrated blog and social networking technology at its recent Lotusphere 2004 conference.
A template for success would be to examine existing enterprise software solutions that automate expertise, competency, and relationship networks (e.g., AskMe, Kamoon, Participate, Sopheon, Tacit, XpertUniverse). These vendors focus on connecting people with experts or people/teams undertaking similar work that might be unaware of others’ activities. We believe more savvy vendors will align themselves with business process management, CRM (e.g., relationship networks), and other strategic business initiatives (e.g., clinical trials, product development), articulating the value of blending social networking into processes that cannot be fully automated to improve worker decision making, cycle times, and process outcomes. For instance, social network software could help surface options about the people or groups someone should interact with around a particular work need, or what relationship to leverage to tap into another person’s know-how.
Although much of focus within Global 2000 enterprises is currently on more tangible strategic endeavors (e.g., business process management, customer relationship management, supply chain management, sourcing, compliance-driven initiatives), renewed interest in organizational productivity (e.g., becoming an adaptive organization), human capital management, workforce flexibility, innovation, and worker/team performance will establish a better business case for social computing strategies during 2005.
Blogs: An Example of Social Computing
Blogs possess many of the attributes identified in META Group’s definition of social computing. Currently, they are almost exclusively found outside the firewall on the public Internet. Blogs have become incredibly popular in areas of social discourse and community building (e.g., politics, hobbies, activism), as well as many Internet portal, news, sports, entertainment, and technology sites as a means of disseminating information, generating commentary, and engaging a self-selecting audience.
Blogs are a type of Web site that uses a diary or journal metaphor to convey information. Blog entries are typically written as conversational dialog (e.g., short posts written from a personal, informal perspective). Tools are very easy to use. Web page entries are posted in time sequence (date/time-stamped), resulting in a chronologically ordered compendium of postings (latest posts listed first) by the author (referred to as a “blogger”) on various topics (with links to applicable sources). Blogs are typically updated in a semiregular manner, with archives of older commentary listed for reference. The act of writing such entries is referred to as “blogging.” While people can read blogs just as they do pages found on other Web sites, one capability that makes them different is that they can be subscribed to via a syndication technology called RSS (also referred to as “Really Simple Syndication” or “Rich Site Summary”). Once an RSS feed is enabled on a blog, other users can receive automated updates in a “push” fashion. This typically requires specialized subscription management software on the user’s client machine to periodically scan, aggregate, and download updates to a blog reader. “Trackback” is another capability that differentiates blogs, enabling one blog to notify another that it is being referenced (e.g., a link and a comment). This distributed reader response model differentiates it from traditional discussion forums (easier reading and navigation).
The popularity of blogs has led social computing enthusiasts to argue their potential benefit to Global 2000 enterprises (e.g., information diffusion across a collective of interested parties). If blogs are appropriate for enterprise use, then strategists needs to determine the best plan to introduce necessary business, organizational, and technological change. Enterprises already have a broad portfolio of content and collaboration technologies (e.g., intranets, portals, e-mail, discussion forums, teamware, search engines). In addition, many Web content management and some portal tools also support RSS for publish/subscribe solutions.
While each has its own strengths and weaknesses, organizations are often not completely satisfied with how these solutions improve information and expertise sharing, collaboration, and community building. E-mail has a well-known history of overloaded inboxes and never-ending discussion threads, with people forced “on copy” due to its push model (via distribution lists or added by those involved in the thread). Discussion forums also have a history of “clutter,” making it difficult to navigate through them, visualize threads, skip posts made out of context, and deal with revisiting past issues when someone new joins. Content managers, while offering some personal publishing capabilities, are typically expensive and oriented toward control (layers of approval mechanisms). Teamware products are anchored around projects and smaller groups of people working on process tasks and are not typically opened up to large audiences. Portals do provide a contextual display of relevant information based on role and preference, but they themselves do not provide much in the way of personal publishing tools.
Enterprises have made progress across many fronts to improve information sharing, community building, and collaboration. However, there are communication channels and networking models that remain untapped. Organizations communicate across various channels using both formal and informal methods. Some communication is vertical in nature (top-down, CxO to manager to supervisor to worker, or some variant of that set of roles and relationships). Other communication is horizontal, more peer-to-peer, social, or network-centric. This type of communication is less regulated and typically not as precise (or regulated) as management would prefer. Most large organizations tolerate levels of imprecision regarding communication for various reasons (e.g., command/control culture, distributed nature of the workplace), but progressive strategists also realize the potential impact a motivated and more knowledgeable workforce has on productivity, performance, and innovation. Exploiting this untapped potential is a focus of social computing strategies. Organizations have to decide whether horizontal, cross-functional, and networked collaboration and information exchange helps build a more adaptive organization that can respond better (e.g., “getting people on the same page,” communities of practice, creativity, idea generation) within appropriate governance frameworks.
Strategists charged with delivering business value that is growth-oriented should investigate social computing trends that attempt to reduce the “fuzziness” of work practices by increasing the free flow of know-how and know-who. Reaching clarity on complex work issues often becomes a repetitive and iterative series of interactions. Improving the precision of how an organization communicates and understands business objectives can certainly occur by enabling more explicit information channels. It is also pragmatic to realize that worker comprehension is something that occurs informally and evolves over time, based on people assessing multiple sources of imprecise information. Blogs are a tool that can help people refine and adapt their cognitive model on various work-related activities by observation and by making people aware of credible resources and subject-matter experts. Utilized in the appropriate situation, blogs can succeed because of their ease of use, simplicity, and diary/journal model.
However, whether the strategic response should be via blogs or continued refinement and leverage of existing tools is a healthy deliberation for business and IT decision makers. Technology alone is never a solution to improve information/expertise sharing, collaboration, and community building. Success is dependent on various factors (e.g., business, organizational, and technology alignment). Many options exist. Decision makers should begin by understanding the basic capabilities of blogs, determining where success has been achieved (consumer and business), and assessing whether such success can be applied to their own circumstances. To aid in brainstorming around possible solution scenarios, strategists should segment applications into some general groupings. We recommend the following five categories as a starting point:
Building the Right Team
Blogs are a good example of how organizations can express themselves from the bottom up, making connections with peers that might not occur through other communication and information channels. Adopting and deploying blog technology require forethought of what employees might publish and what actions might be expected to ensue. Although this problem exists in other mediums (e.g., e-mail), conventions around blogs are inherently different depending on how they are used (e.g., personal observations vs. more formalized journals that are reviewed and edited prior to publication). This represents more opportunity (e.g., enabling peer expertise networks for knowledge transfer) than risk if expectations are properly set. Assessment teams should include representatives involved in organizational development, human capital management, and knowledge management, in addition to business and IT strategists.
Journals and diaries are already part of certain knowledge- and information-centric work activities that are conversational and chronologically driven. Many activities require people to take notes and pass them along in some fashion. Blogs improve how that type of insight is captured and shared. In other cases, blogs might be justified as a replacement or adjunct to other systems for content syndication/distribution. Blogs might even be positioned as an ad hoc channel for professionals to publish and be listened to only by those that care to subscribe to a specific topic (e.g., engineers, utilization management nurses). Brainstorming is essential for not constraining how creatively blogs might be utilized. This might involve the use of focus groups and other feedback methods to determine how end users are struggling with information, communication, and collaboration. Some examples include:
Determining Governance, Policies, and Procedures
Blogs can trigger a grassroots phenomenon that unleashes all sorts of employee musings and opinions. That might be good or bad, depending on the goals and the culture of the organization. Enterprises need to identify how blogs can improve processes and cross-functional situations (e.g., sharing expertise, fostering community). The most important aspect of governance is to determine the proper level of acceptable use (and enforcement), editorial controls, and audit needs (e.g., logging) that balances risks versus benefits (e.g., whether bloggers should publish directly or through an approval process in certain situations). This is a key point, because blogging should have a personal, informal style unless the technology is simply being used as a content syndication channel via RSS. An external blog around a thematic event might be managed differently from one that is being positioned for internal discourse.
Assessing Investment and Risk
Analysis of quantitative and qualitative investments in terms of costs (e.g., reduction, avoidance), benefits (e.g., process efficiency/effectiveness), and time horizon for returns is necessary. The less tangible the predicted value, the more qualitative (and subjective) benefits will become, and the more difficult they will be to portray accurately and measure over time. Risk analysis is also required (e.g., liability implications for the enterprise of personal opinions published without editorial control, privacy concerns of bloggers). Decision makers should determine general risk by category (e.g., internal blogs versus public-facing blogs) and whether the exposure can be mitigated by proper controls and monitoring of practices. Examination of technology risk (e.g., infrastructure, security) is also warranted.
Defining a Project Checklist
Blog projects should be provided with some assessment and analysis methods to ensure necessary decisions are made (e.g., infrastructure, operations, security). Items to consider include:
Bottom Line: Innovative decision makers and early adopters will avoid the mistakes of the past (underestimating the impact of the Web) by allocating discretionary funding in 2004 for blog pilots as part of an iterative effort to construct a broader business case for social computing.
Business Impact: Sharing personal knowledge and enabling connections across peer groups are important best practices that improve workplace performance and innovation.
META Group originally published this article on 29 March 2004