Social Computing: Getting Ahead of the Blog

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.
Written by Mike Gotta, Contributor

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:

  • The Internet
  • More capable computing devices and new form factors
  • Normalcy of rich media (audio, video, voice, data)
  • Market convergence (e.g., communication, consumer electronics, collaboration tools)
  • Mobility and pervasive connectivity (e.g., wireless)
  • Virtualization of everything
  • Sociopolitical and economic trends
The challenge for social computing vendors is defining a business model that generates revenue. Examples that have emerged in the public space focus on social networking (e.g., Friendster, LinkedIn, Orkut, Ryze). However, none of these services has a track record that demonstrates long-term viability of the underlying business model. While applying such solutions within enterprises and their extended networks (partners, employees, customers, and suppliers) is promising, we believe pure-play social networking vendors will struggle to gain critical mass and credibility with IT groups (e.g., lack of professional services; integration issues with existing applications and infrastructure; “good enough” alternatives from portal, content, and collaboration vendors).

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:

  • Internal blogs: Targeted to employees only
  • External blogs: Focused on the general public, customers, partners, or suppliers
  • Thematic blogs: Topically linked to a particular event, marketing campaign, or other project
  • Sponsored blogs: Posted by an employee (or possibly an invited or sponsored guest) that is authorized - but whose content is not necessarily endorsed - by the company
  • Personal blogs: Individual user blogs residing on one of many hosting services
Understanding the different categories enables strategists and decision makers to illustrate multiple solution scenarios. As part of that process, several critical issues need to be examined, including:
  • How do blogs add or detract from the overall business model?
  • How will blogs be positioned versus other communication, collaboration, and information channels?
  • Will users respond to a “pull” (subscription-based) model?
  • Will a browser model for reading blogs suffice, or will an e-mail client be preferred by users?
  • Will blog proliferation lead to just another source of information overload?
  • To what degree is editorial control and release management required?
  • How will the time devoted to blog-related activities by employees be valued?
  • What leadership, communication plans, and reward/incentive programs are necessary to encourage blog adoption and use?
  • What risk factors do blogs present (e.g., court-ordered discovery, regulatory compliance)?
  • What rights management situations might arise (e.g., copyright)?
  • Will blogs become as credible a resource as other sources of company information?
  • How will blogs be used within business processes as opposed to personal networks?
  • What are the alignment aspects of blogs (e.g., portals, content, learning, and collaboration tools)?
  • How do blogs “fit” into existing infrastructure (directory, security, operational management)?
  • What metrics (e.g., subscription data, page sessions) should be gathered and reported?
  • Are blogs a premium service for certain external activities (e.g., commerce aspects)?
  • Are vendors already on-standard and poised to deliver blog tools, or can they deliver the same benefits within existing technology?
  • What options do emerging vendors, hosted services, or open-source alternatives offer?
  • What are the archival and records management aspects of blogs?
  • What storage implications (e.g., backup/restore) will occur, and what limitations around storage allocation per worker (similar to e-mail inboxes) might have to be established?
  • What content security aspects should be required to protect liability, confidentiality, and intellectual property?
  • How does all this fit into a social computing strategy?
Strategists working on a business case for social computing, and blogs in particular, should consider the following.

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.

Identifying Opportunities
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:

  • Program and project management: Status reports by date, action items, issues, “bug reports”
  • Software development: Specification analysis, design commentary, error analysis, change logs
  • Clinical trials: Lab notes, peer review commentary, analysis of test cases
  • Customer/product support: FAQs, knowledgebases, shift notes
  • Research and intelligence activities: Analysis and commentary
  • Sales and marketing: Competitive intelligence
  • Utilization management: Best practices for treatments, preventive care
Organizations reported by public news sources to be undertaking blog projects include the following:
  • It has been published that the Navy’s eBusiness Operations Office is using commercial blog technology as part of its Rapid Acquisition Incentive-Net Centricity pilot program. The Test and Evaluation Weblog Project will improve information sharing for program managers, project experts, contractors, sponsors, and war-fighters.
  • Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, an investment bank of Dresdner Bank AG and a member of Allianz Group, is reportedly planning to use blogs as a means to improve internal communications. Verizon is reportedly using commercial blog technology within its competitive intelligence and market research group.
  • Western States Information Network is reportedly using commercial blog technology (adopting a notebook metaphor) to aid in intelligence sharing for law enforcement.
  • Disney has been reported to be using blogs, RSS, and wiki technology within its Internet group for internal collaboration and information sharing. It is also using the solution within the ABC Cable Networks unit for shift logs and discrepancy reports.
  • IBM reportedly has more than 100 external RSS feeds on www.ibm.com.
  • Sun has announced its commitment to RSS.
Regardless of the use-case scenario or example of enterprise blog initiatives, decision makers need to define blog benefits to specific metrics and their contribution toward business goals.

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:

  • For an external blog, a comparison of how information is currently distributed (e.g., to customers, suppliers, and partners) to ensure consistency/credibility of a “blog channel” versus other information flows to avoid conflicts (individual vs. official views).
  • For a thematic blog, if the event is ongoing, timely posts need to be generated. If the blog is linked to a marketing campaign, traffic needs to be directed to the blog from other touch points (e.g., Web site, direct e-mail, referral from a customer support representative).
  • For a sponsored blog, commitments from any guest bloggers need to be secured. If the sponsored blog is authored by an employee, the activity needs to be supported by that individual’s management to ensure time is allotted.
  • For internal blogs, organizations should include a common directory listing that catalogs blogs to ease discovery and ensure they are included as an option for portal personalization and crawled by search engines.
  • For personal blogs, guidelines for employees’ personal blogs on public hosting services should be defined (e.g., confidentiality, use of company name).
Alignment With Other Tools
As experience grows, organizations should monitor deployment to establish a better application taxonomy around blogs and RSS versus other content, search, and collaboration tools:
  • Teamware: We believe there is a tremendous amount of synergy between teamware and blogs. Project-specific blogs should be listed within virtual workspaces, enabling other team members to subscribe to them. Posts could be related to specifications, test results, or simple observations of project issues. More importantly, blogs can be used to disseminate information to a broader community of people interested in aspects of the project but are not part of the team and not authorized to access the workspace itself. We believe teamware vendors (e.g., IBM, Microsoft, Open Text, Vignette, SiteScape) will incorporate blogging tools within 18-24 months.
  • E-mail: We do not believe blogs are a “silver bullet” to eliminate e-mail glut at the outset (inappropriate use, endless discussion threads, extra people “on copy”). However, as organizational maturity increases (driven by behavior change, not technology), some conversations will shift toward a publish/subscribe model and shared workspace. Indeed, we believe native support for RSS feeds will be required of e-mail clients (e.g., Microsoft Outlook, IBM Notes) without requiring third-party add-ons (e.g., NewsGator).
  • Instant messaging: Synergies between “presence” and blogs is another connectivity mechanism that organizations should plan. “Buddy lists” within a blog could be built dynamically, including not only the blog author, but comments/links by other bloggers as well.
  • Content management: We expect enterprise content management vendors (e.g., EMC, FileNet, Open Text) to build blogging applications on top of their core services. Indeed, SilkRoad is built on top of Eprise, an enterprise content management platform. In addition, the content of some blogs might require content security measures and records management to comply with various business controls.
Building an IT Blueprint
IT architects and infrastructure planners need to be involved upfront to ensure proper positioning of blog technology within an overall knowledge worker infrastructure. Blogging has several technology implications, including content syndication, alignment with other tools (e.g., e-mail, portals, teamware, content management), and application integration. For instance, RSS is not a very mature technology and has some competition from other syndication methods (e.g., Atom). Assessments should include analysis of current vendors and their plans to deliver blog functionality over time (or duplicate it using existing capabilities), enabling decision makers to undertake gap analysis to determine whether it is best to wait, proceed with a tactical product, or make a longer-term decision on an emerging vendor. This activity should include examination of existing tools (e.g., portals, teamware) to discover why they are not effective and whether gaps can be alleviated without the introduction of new technology. If not, blogs can deliver a viable solution. Technology options are very broad, ranging from open-source and hosting services to small, emerging software vendors. An illustrative list follows:
  • Hosting services
    -Blogger (www.blogger.com)
    -LiveJournal (www.livejournal.com)
    -Radio Userland (http://radio.userland.com)
    -TypePad (www.typepad.com)
  • RSS client software
    -NewsGator (www.newsgator.com)
    -Wildgrape (www.wildgrape.net)
    -AmphetaDesk (www.amphetadesk.com)
    -SharpReader (www.sharpreader.com)
    -Yahoo (RSS Beta - www.yahoo.com)
    -NewzCrawler (www.newzcrawler.com)
    -BlogStreet (www.blogstreet.com)
    -2entwine (www.2entwine.com)
  • Blog/RSS feed search engines
    -Daypop (www.daypop.com)
    -Blogdigger (www.blogdigger.com)
    -Feedster (www.feedster.com)
    -BlogDex (www.blogdex.com)
  • Emerging software vendors
    -Radio UserLand (http://radio.userland.com)
    -SilkRoad (www.silkroad.com)
    -Six Apart (www.sixapart.com)
    -Socialtext (www.socialtext.com)
    -Spoke (www.spoke.com)
    -Traction (www.tractionsoftware.com)
    -WiredReach (www.wiredreach.com)
At this point, we would not recommend firm standardization on any single vendor or service. Selections should be considered tactical. We would also not recommend any uncontrolled rollout across the enterprise without employee orientation (e.g., governance factors). Deployments should be prioritized and sequenced based on benefits to specific business objectives, processes, and organizational practices (e.g., provisioning workers with solutions that help them deal with complexity and perpetual change, lifelong learning objectives regarding expertise transfer of work practices in the face of aging workforce trends). Instituted properly, the potential business and workforce benefits of blogs can be significant.

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

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