How to Use Enterprise Blogs to Streamline Project Management

Too many enterprise users get lost in storms of reply-all e-mails while trying to manage projects or collaborate. Blogs make a better answer.

Eugene Roman, group president of systems and technology at Bell Canada, knows how to play a blog. An enterprise blog, that is. And he has taught his employees to play a blog so well that they often have "jam" sessions—an internal blog forum where groups of employees discuss new products and work to streamline efficiencies at the $18 billion telecom. "It's like grabbing some instruments and going into a garage," Roman says.

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Except, Bell Canada's garage is virtual and lives on the corporate intranet. The primary instrument, a lightweight enterprise blogging tool, lets coworkers blog about topics from figuring out ways to cut energy costs to conceiving new products for Bell Canada, whose distributed workforce stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (Roman chose Telligent's Community Server 2.0 and did some in-house development for the blog effort.)

Roman's embrace of blogs shows that he understands an ugly secret that IT departments all over North America don't want to admit: E-mail, used by itself, just doesn't cut it anymore for project management and interoffice communication. People get lost in "CC storms" of reply-all e-mails that overwhelm users trying to manage projects or collaborate on new business opportunities. "There's definitely a dark side to e-mail," Roman says. "We've all had it for 20 years, and you'd think we could get it right."

But most companies haven't gotten it right, and recent research indicates they're looking for alternatives. A report earlier this year by consultancy Forrester Research revealed that 54 percent of IT decision makers expressed an interest in blogs. Of the companies that had piloted or implemented blogs, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said they used them for internal communications. Fifty percent said they used blogs for internal knowledge and content management—and these companies are leading the way of the future, analysts say.

If you're just now preparing to take the blog plunge, changing decades of work habits for a generation of information workers tethered to e-mail won't be easy. Blogs also remain a tough sell for traditional IT leaders who value a command-and-control, top-down hierarchy when it comes to their infrastructure. "Traditional enterprise solutions were designed to keep IT happy," says Suw Charman, a social software consultant who helps companies understand the use of blogs and wikis in business. "They're not usually designed with any thought to the user, like a blog is."

For implementation success, say analysts and practitioners like Roman who have championed the technology, you'll need enterprise-worthy blogging tools and test group members who become believers and ideally will evangelize the technology. If successful, blogs could be the first critical building block in a group of Web-based applications to help spawn horizontal collaboration across the enterprise.

Clearing the Reputation Hurdle

One starting hurdle: Blogs still suffer a reputation problem within large enterprises (and even small and medium-size businesses), analysts say. Many people carry a narrow view of what blogs can accomplish. "People are hung up on this concept of the blog as a diary and as an external marketing medium," says Charman. "There are actually very practical uses for blogs internally."

At a large company, the people most likely to have this narrow view of blogs are the C-level executives themselves. How can you combat this misconception? In the beginning of a blog effort, Bell Canada's Roman says, companies should consider avoiding the word blog altogether and use a euphemism. "Calling it something like an idea board can be good start," he says. "That's less threatening than saying, 'I want to start a virtual water cooler where people can blog and discuss new products.'"

It's also important to address security and compliance issues from the start, Roman notes. Bell Canada addressed those concerns by building the blog behind the corporate firewall. Remote workers can access it only through the corporate intranet using a virtual private network (VPN). "The executives are immediately concerned about legality," he says. "So you lay out what the rules of engagement will be. That makes them more comfortable with going forward."

Start Small

While blogs are typically most useful when many users participate, analysts and practitioners say you're better off to start small. Blogs work well when they catch on virally, and you need to introduce the idea to the right test group, who will then evangelize the idea to the rest of the enterprise.

Sometimes, that test group has already given up on enterprise tools, as Dr. Mark Greenhalgh recently learned. Greenhalgh, a family physician, sought a test group for his social networking portal (which includes a blogging feature) launching as part of an initiative funded by the United Kingdom's department of health. The best candidate turned out to be what IT managers would call a "rogue IT" group (one that seeks out a consumer-grade technology to help do its jobs when enterprise tools disappoint). The Public Health Commissioning Network—a group of 200 physicians who allocate scarce funds for drugs, technology and research—had taken to using a Yahoo discussion forum to avoid long, tangled e-mail threads. While the forum was password protected, Greenhalgh says the doctors needed something better. "They have pretty sensitive talks and they need to keep it reasonably quiet," he says.

The public health commissioning network and two other groups will serve as a test group for Greenhalgh. He hopes to make them advocates who will encourage other physicians to get on board. "I'm giving them a platform that's more dedicated to their needs," he says. "We need to then bring people into these communities so they can gain momentum."

Bell Canada's Roman also successfully used pilot groups for his blogging platform and other Web 2.0 technologies. "The test group is very critical," he says. "You need a friendly test group. You want them to give you the critique, but they also become the champion and say, Wow, this is cool, and tell their colleagues."

This blog effort, dubbed "ID-ah" by Bell Canada, was first used by a few hundred employees in 2006, with a full rollout companywide in early 2007. The "jam sessions" started in 2007 as well.

To date, more than 1,000 ideas have been submitted by employees, 3,000 comments shared about the ideas, and 15,000 employees (out of 40,000 Bell Canada employees) have voted, Roman says. Of the 1,000 ideas, 27 of the top voted ideas have been "harvested" for review in the past six months and 12 have been implemented, he adds.

Curing the E-mail Addicts

For all the hype about Web-based technologies permeating the enterprise, not all employees love consumer IT. Some people clutch to their corporate e-mail boxes as if they were cigarettes: They're hopelessly addicted. "The primary communication medium is still e-mail," says Jonathan Edwards, a Yankee Group analyst. "We're all so accustomed to it. You can't change the way people work overnight."

One way to wean employees from e-mail communications: Don't fight it entirely. The sister technology to a blog, Real Simple Syndication (RSS), can help. At Bell Canada, when a manager decides to start a blog jam, he or she uses an RSS feed to push an invite message to the desired participants' e-mail inboxes. In the e-mail, employees can click on a link that leads them to the jam session. The message also says they have 48 hours to comment on the topic, making it harder for them to throw the invite aside.

Roman also has very specific guidelines for how people conduct themselves. One of the drawbacks to online communication formats like blogs is that they encourage passive-aggressive behavior and other kinds of what's now commonly called Web rage. People might feel emboldened to say something to another colleague that they'd never say in a face-to-face meeting or on the phone. "There won't be any slamming on our blogs," Roman says. "We make that very clear when people log on for the first time."

The benefits of a safe blogging environment can be huge for employees who have difficulty expressing themselves in more formal forums. "They can be really great for those not willing to stand up at a meeting," says Dennis D. McDonald, an independent consultant from Alexandria, Virg. who studies and consults on the use of blogs for project management and internal communications.

Tag It or Bag It

Teaching employees to use blog-editing tools isn't hard, since they essentially look like a lightweight word processor. Instead, the challenge comes in reminding them to tag their posts with keywords that will help with later search and discovery needs.

The tagging might be difficult for a generation of workers accustomed to putting everything into tidy folders on their desktop and corporate shared drives.

Blogs exemplify a different way of looking at information—asking users to accept that information stores will become so vast that taking the time to sort items into folders isn't realistic. Employees (and IT managers) need to learn how to let go. "Instead of organizing it into nice and tidy folders, they'll need to learn to let the data be messy," Charman says. "You just need to make sure they can always find it through search."

A blog post has to have keywords assigned so it will get indexed and then found when someone later enters the relevant topic into a search engine. The aggregation of the tagged search terms is known as a taxonomy, and building a good one is critical if your blogs are to have long-term success in the enterprise space.

Tags can be formulated in ways that best suit your organization. "You can have a tag associated with a person, a sales team, a region or a product," says Yankee Group's Edwards. "It's really up to you. But establishing a proper taxonomy is so important for these tools to be effective. It gives you a smarter search engine. Without it, you will fail."

No's Not a Good Answer

Remember, if companies don't adopt blogging technologies for the enterprise, line-of-business heads are just a credit-card purchase away from a hosted offering.

Dr. Greenhalgh chuckles when asked about his relationship to the IT department at the department of health. "It's nothing mean spirited," he explains. "I've just never seen eye-to-eye with the senior information people." Greenhalgh wouldn't mind getting IT's blessing, but he doesn't need its blessing or funding. His new information portal, centrally funded by the department of health, runs via a hosted offering. He just needs user names and passwords for the test groups and he's on his way.

For his part, Bell Canada's Roman has prevented rogue IT uprisings by staying on the progressive side of the fence. He keeps an eye on what's happening on the public Internet and has his development team make changes accordingly. "The younger employees live off this stuff," he says. "It's what they're conditioned to using. Now, typically, guys like me in their fifties look at this stuff and go hmmm. But I want to stay 18 for the rest of my life. This is cool stuff."

Blogging Toolbox

The nitty-gritty implementation of a blog isn't all that hard. Neither is navigating the selection of tools. In fact, line-of-business leaders who want to start a blogging effort without getting IT involved at all need only a credit card and a Web browser to deploy a hosted blogging service (from a vendor such as Automattic) to their staff.

For companies taking the more proactive approach to enterprise blogging, says Jonathan Edwards, a Yankee Group analyst, pure-play blogging vendors like Six Apart (known for its Movable Type products) make a natural starting point. Blogging is bread and butter for these vendors, and they've made their livelihood in the past few years building enterprise-grade blogs and related tools with simple user interfaces, data integration and strong security. Also worth considering in this group: Blogtronix, a platform that integrates blogs with wikis, RSS, communities, analytics and corporate social networking, and Jive Software's Clearspace suite, which includes blogs, discussion and wiki tools.

For customers who don't want a hosted solution because of compliance concerns regarding business communications, some of these vendors also offer on-premises solutions.

It's just a matter of time, Edwards says, before traditional vendors like Microsoft and IBM capitalize on their blog capabilities by pairing them with a suite of Web 2.0 applications. "IT wants a more integrated communications and collaboration suite," he says. Today, IBM offers a blog function in its Lotus Connections suite of Web 2.0 inspired technologies, and Microsoft's Sharepoint contains a blog template.

That said, Edwards warns against your ruling out the blogging specialists right now, since they've held the keys to innovation and have developed user-friendly interfaces.

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