by Diann Daniel

Web 2.0 for the Suits: One Visionary’s Take

May 31, 200710 mins
InnovationIT Leadership

Open e-mail, open source, open environments. British Telecom's CIO of global services, JP Rangaswami, gives his thoughts on corporate culture and the free exchange of information.

JP Rangaswami is not your typical CIO, but he is certainly an outspoken one. The current CIO of global services at British Telecom and former CIO of Dresder Kleinwort (named CIO of the Year by Waters Magazine in 2003) is passionate about IT, open source and Web 2.0. He writes in his blog Confused of Calcutta, “ever since I read The Cluetrain Manifesto I have believed in the ‘markets are conversations’ theme” and his credo is required reading for any executive contemplating Web 2.0 and the future of information sharing.

His take on e-mail is also unusual. For example, he reads no e-mails he is cc’d on, only those addressed to him alone. And at Dresdner Kleinwort, he opened his e-mails—both incoming and outgoing—to his management team. Here he shares some thoughts with

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A superior order problem that affects a lot of Web 2.0 is that if people don’t want to share, they won’t share. No system in the world is going to force them to when they have a cultural bias against it. Web 2.0 is first and foremost about culture in that sense. Those are core values, and if people don’t get those values then you are met with, “This looks trivial. This is not work. Have you looked at the security implications?” All the usual objections to a Web 2.0 model.

On Information-Controlling Cultures

Sharing information does not demean your having it. Personally I want to see the pockets of power based on behind-closed-doors alliances destroyed. And I have no problem saying I think it’s part of the job of a firm CIO and their policies to make sure that you don’t create artificial pockets of power based on selfish motives of individuals exploiting information and not sharing it. The people who do that haven’t understood the value of teaching, learning, and sharing information or the wisdom of crowds.

Why does open source work? Because given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. Now the bug that may be shallow may be an information bug. So if you put the facts out, then a fact that you got wrong is more likely to be corrected if there are 1,000 people seeing it rather than 100 people seeing it. There is a self-correcting capacity when you have a large group of people seeing things, which is very, very powerful in a firm. The training costs for new hires and induction plans or programs is that much lower if you have the concept of transparent information in place.

On Enterprise Web 2.0

There may be a lot of hype about Web 2.0, but its use in the enterprise is still in the early-adopter phase. I talked with Andy McCaffee at Harvard [Business School] about this because he did five case studies of what we did at Dresdner Kleinwort to adopt Web 2.0 technologies in the enterprise. We asked who else is using these technologies aggressively, and we realized that there’s pockets of experimentation but widespread usage is rare.

One of the reasons I joined BT is because the use of collaborative tools is already widespread, and therefore I’m not pushing water uphill or pushing against a closed door. When I negotiated my job, they said, Of course you can keep your blog going, just make it clear what’s your personal opinion and what’s your professional opinion. Staff read my blog, and I freely discuss things that are challenging me at work. I don’t think people realize the blog is like a conversation at the dinner table or lunch table. And of course, you don’t break customer confidentiality; you don’t say things that are injurious to caste or creed or color.

On What Web Technologies Can Do for Your Customer

I believe the biggest transformations will be in such areas as collaboration, collective intelligence, and predictive market tools based on Web technologies. I want to create a seamless and unified customer experience, whether customers come to a portal, a call center, whether they are dealing with the head office, or whether they are dealing with an individual. We can make all those experiences the same. This is easier said than done because many times you go to a firm, and your Web experience is different than your kiosk experience is different than your service desk experience or your call center experience.

On the Inadequacy of E-Mail as a Collaboration Tool

E-mail was the only collaboration tool in town for years, and it’s not fit for that purpose anymore. If you want to share reference material, for example, a wiki is a much better way of doing it. Then you don’t have people looking at different versions; there is only one version, it’s the latest. If you want audit trails, you can see the history; you can see when the last edits were made. A wiki is much better than e-mail because the former enables collaborative edit on a single article, people can see what others’ edits are, and it gives you the wisdom of crowds faster.

You can use blogs for the preliminary conversation elements. Where the answer is not known somebody posts an opinion, people comment on it, and a conversation begins in order to reach a conclusion, which may well go onto a wiki. What the blog and the wiki do is take away the attachment culture, genuinely allowing multiple people to look at the same thing at the same time, and they take away the threat of sequential commentary and complication of managing an e-mail chain.

What E-Mail Is Good For

E-mail is a great broadcast medium for messages you want to push out to people and a host of point-to-point transactions. It’s perfectly reasonable to have some push communication where you want all staff to get something. You can choose different models of doing it, but e-mail is the best first element. For example, this e-mail is to tell you there’s a new sheriff in town, his name is such and such, he rides in tomorrow. For further details go to this URL. Now the point is it’s short. It’s broadcast. And it’s broadcast without being spam because it’s meaningful information.

There are times when the whole enterprise or a particular department would like to operate in broadcast mode. There are all kinds of regulatory things that need to be sent out. But don’t confuse that with corporate spam where people keep you on lists you have no interest in being on or using your name to cover themselves. Or worse, using your mailbox as a place to score points over each other.

On an Open E-mail Policy

At the bank [Dresder Kleinwort], I had a dozen people on my team able to read my incoming and outgoing e-mail. I flipped the usual model people have: I outsourced my mailbox to my team and I insourced my phone. The calls that interest me the most are from someone I’ve never heard of on a subject I know nothing about. And if it’s a salesman trying to sell me something, it takes me two minutes to tell him, look, I’m not interested.

More on Web 2.0

Is the Enterprise Afraid of Web 2.0?

Stowe Boyd on Web 2.0 in the Enterprise

Five Tips for Bringing Web 2.0 Into the Enterprise

ABC: An Introduction to Web 2.0  

As for e-mail, I can have members of my team see and deal with much of it. And they can learn from the e-mails I do deal with and see how I handle things, and they get experience dealing with things they might not otherwise. So what I start doing every time I get a management team together is I’ll have a couple of people be on my PA reading my mail as soon as I’ve established the right terms of trust with the people who send me confidential things and say, are you happy with my whole management team seeing it? For confidential things, you can always call me.

E-mail can lend itself to some darker behaviors such as using the “cc” to avoid being held responsible if something goes wrong, people replying to only certain people on a group e-mail list, or team members complaining about each other via e-mail when they are under stress. They don’t do that if everybody can read what they write. An open e-mail policy helps people take ownership. And by not allowing these dark areas to exist, by shining a light on the places these things happen, it creates a more harmonious dialogue.

I think there is something open source about opening up the mailbox, which is that transparency is good, it’s accountable because after all you’re working for an enterprise, there shouldn’t be many secrets, and it stops the attacking and whining of others in e-mail. If someone wants to say something very confidential then they can choose other routes.

You wind up with all the positives. One is getting people to appreciate what you do. Then there’s the learning that can be done, there’s teaching that can be done, there’s modeling and succession planning. And that’s not trivial.

JP Rangaswami’s Credo*

• I believe that it is only a matter of time before enterprise software consists of only four types of application: publishing, search, fulfillment and conversation. I believe that weaknesses and corruptions in our own thinking about digital rights and intellectual property rights will have the effect of slowing down or sometimes even blocking this from happening.

• I believe we keep building layers of lock-in that prevent information from flowing freely, and that we have a lot to learn about the right thing to do in this respect. I believe identity and presence and authentication and permissioning are in some ways the new battlegrounds, where the freedom of information flow will be fought for, and bitterly at that.

• I believe that we do live in an age of information overload, and that we have to find ways of simplifying our access to the information; of assessing the quality of the information; of having better tools to visualize the information, to enrich and improve it, of passing the information on.

• I believe that Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law and Gilder’s Law have created an environment where it is finally possible to demonstrate the value of information technology in simple terms rather than by complex inferences and abstract arguments.

• I believe that simplicity and convenience are important, and that we have to learn to respect human time.

• I believe we need to discuss these things and find ways of getting them right. And I have a fervent hope that through this blog, I can keep the conversations going and learn from them.

*From Rangaswami’s blog, Confused of Calcutta