by Michael Schrage

Making I.T. Work With Blogs: The Virtues of Chitchat

May 15, 20046 mins
Consumer Electronics

My Fortune 500 friends are always forwarding their more Dilbert-esque corporate e-mails to inspire me. Such missives are typically hysterical. (My favorite is the one that informs IT people that there’s a freeze on hiring and salaries, and that the company is exploring outsourcing options and expects their help in managing the process.) But as a change of pace, one enterprising Fortune 100 buddy took the liberty of sending me a clever and provocative internal corporate blog.

This blogger had quite the tale to tell. He was one of the IT minions supervising the installation of a rather large and unwieldy global ERP system replete with Bangalorean outsourcing and Big Four consulting hordes. His blog?with links to internal sites that, alas, I couldn’t access?described what aspects of the rollout were going well and which ones were horror shows in the making. It was a good read; I learned a lot.

But I couldn’t help thinking: What kind of company actually allows an unauthorized, unedited blog about one of its most sensitive projects? While transparency and openness behind the firewall may be a wonderful thing, I don’t know how thrilled I’d be about ERP blogs if I were CIO.

Curious, I pinged a few of those Fortune 500 friends. To my astonishment, I discovered that while internal IT blogs may not be commonplace, they’re not exactly rare. Though utterly unscientific, my informal queries found several major companies allowing blogs to coordinate and annotate project status information. At least one global IT consultancy has a rather witty blogger?I can’t find out if it’s approved or not?whose work is apparently required reading for his associates. The blog’s hotlinks to internal reports, presentations and client reviews are reportedly first-rate.

Another internal blog at a huge financial services company can’t possibly be authorized. But apparently, its mix of critical comments is seen as more constructive than not. I’m told that the CIO is an occasional reader and has informed subordinates that it serves as a reality check?for now.

Drawing distinctions between authorized internal blogs versus ones that are merely allowed or tolerated can’t be easy. I’d be comfortable making a case that companies are completely entitled to ban individual blogs as surely as they ban inappropriate personal e-mails.

That said, the blogging phenomenon has intriguingly useful implications for IT. I have to ask myself: Why wouldn’t it make sense for an IT project manager to post a blog?or “plog” (project log)?to keep her team and its constituents up-to-date on project issues and concerns? Is it inherently inappropriate for an individual to post constructive observations about a project’s progress? IT organizations that can effectively use blogs as managerial tools (or communication resources) are probably development environments that take both people and their ideas seriously.

Indeed, most of us so loathe traditional IT’s “mushroom management” techniques (keep them in the dark and throw manure on them) that the notion of plogs that either complement or supplement more formal communication has a certain appeal. Whether management should explicitly encourage, authorize, endorse or simply allow plogs to emerge is a judgment call best left up to the culture of the company and character of the individuals.

Frankly, if I were involved in an ERP rollout, I would be genuinely interested in accessing the blog of a user who actually had to cope with the implementation. His comments would likely have a salutary effect on me. Similarly, if I’m a sales manager at a pharmaceutical giant, I would be interested in occasionally browsing the blog of my IT counterpart who’s installing the sales-force automation system. To be sure, I’m motivated more by curiosity than by the lust to interfere. But I’ve always liked the idea of relatively painless ways to get up to speed on issues. Plogs seem ideally designed to permit that.

From a managerial perspective, I can hardly think of a better way to get new members of an IT team contextually grounded than to give them plogs to peruse, rather than make them read the outdated project sheets or suffer through a hasty luncheon debrief by the current project leadership. Of course, that’s contingent upon the quality of the plog?but then again, the utility of virtually all management tools ultimately depends on their quality.

It’s easy to imagine, for example, that plogs discoursing on coding and testing travails would be a wonderful resource for online documentation, FAQs and customer support. My own experiences browsing blogs-beyond-the-firewall has been that, for all their idiosyncrasies, they represent a pleasantly efficient way to review past events.

Yes, “blogorrhea”?the unedited stream-of-consciousness blather that afflicts so many bloggers?is a genuine risk. Experience teaches that there’s a frighteningly thin line between self-expression and self-indulgence. (Just ask my editor.) Many people find that the sort of temperament (and ego) that loves to blog does not always lend itself to either constructive criticism or healthy feedback. Bloggers are typically too fond of the perpendicular pronoun. Then again, there are managers who screw up performance reviews too. The medium doesn’t have to be the message.

So plogs can and should be different from blogs. Different organizations have the opportunity?I would now say the obligation?to explore how best to marry this medium of expression with the insatiable need for better managing communication, coordination and collaboration with IT and its clients. Frankly, I think plogs?like project leadership?represent an investment in professional development. That is, if a developer or manager or customer support rep can produce plogs that attract interest, raise awareness and foment change?well, that’s a skill that deserves recognition and reward.

Inevitably, companies will need to establish guidelines?legal, ethical, editorial and otherwise?about linking to plogs and who should be able to access them. Formalizing the informal is always risky. In fact, perhaps pushing for plog precepts may undermine the very openness and spontaneity that makes the idea seem so potentially powerful and appealing. But that’s the nature of the organizational beast.

The simple truth is, many organizations may need plogs to discover their own simple truths about how well (or how poorly) their projects are going. Maybe plogs will be more successful as project communication media for departments outside of IT. Wouldn’t that be ironic? That’s the sort of emergent managerial phenomenon that somebody might well decide to launch a blog about. Any takers?