Enterprise 2.0 topics covering definition, objectives, systems and solutions.
By Ron Miller
No doubt, you view “Enterprise 2.0” as yet another buzzword invented by vendors who are vying for your attention. However, once you peel back the layers and look past the Enterprise 2.0 hype, you will discover that it’s a useful and reasonable set of technologies for business.
As the sheer amount of enterprise content grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to track and share. It’s not a new problem, but the avalanche of information your employees have to process raises the necessity to deal with the issue.
Enterprise 2.0 tools make it easier to share and organize information. Tagging and rating provide a straightforward way to find content and make judgments about what to look at. Blogs and wikis are natural collaboration and communication platforms. Social network tools help staff find the right individual or group of people. Enterprise 2.0 has the potential to provide knowledge and content management in a surprisingly cheap and easy fashion using Web-based tools.
In this introduction to the subject, we explain what Enterprise 2.0 is, how it can help your organization and the technology’s limitations.
Enterprise 2.0 refers to the concept of moving Web 2.0 tools and technologies (see The ABCs of Web 2.0) into the enterprise to help your employees, partners, suppliers and customers work together to build networks of like-minded people and share information. Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee is credited with coining the “Enterprise 2.0” term when he saw the potential to apply to business the concepts of Web 2.0 tools, which until recently have been used primarily by teens and college students to build social networks.
Enterprise 2.0 takes the original concept of the Web, using websites to feed content to visitors, and turns it upside down. Instead of a one-way conversation-your company talking to the site visitor-Enterprise 2.0 lets you implement a multiparty conversation to share information and manage knowledge inside and outside the organization using blogs and wikis, social networking and tagging, rating systems and the like. The link among these tools is the ability of the individuals involved to participate and to control the process while they work together, share information and create networks of people with similar interests.
Tools to enable these functions have existed for a long time. The trouble is that few people used them, despite large amounts of resources expended to deploy these systems. What changed is the simplicity of the tools. If they’re simpler, they’re more likely to be used, an important component for knowledge management. (That is, nobody had an incentive to share information, particularly when doing so was a pain.)
This gives new hope to the idea of managing knowledge and sharing information, a goal that goes back to the 1990s when vendors began developing knowledge management and content management solutions. Instead of trying to implement huge, all-encompassing enterprisewide systems, the simpler Web-based tools under the Enterprise 2.0 umbrella strip away the complexity of the ’90s technologies while carrying on the spirit of the ideas.
The fact is, Enterprise 2.0 concepts are gaining credibility, and it’s not just startups that are paying attention to this space. More than 800 people attended the recent Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston, which included speakers from IBM, Microsoft and Cisco, and a host of other smaller players. IBM introduced the Web 2.0 Goes to Work package for the WebSphere Portal, while Microsoft promoted Sharepoint, a natural collaboration environment, as a way to implement Enterprise 2.0 ideas along with Office and other Microsoft technologies.
When managers examine Web 2.0 tools such as MySpace or YouTube, they may wonder why one would ever want to apply this to the enterprise. Yet, once you get past the drinking party photos and goofy teen stunt videos and you look more closely at the ways young people share content and build social networks, the business applications for Enterprise 2.0 become clearer. Here are a few of the technologies common in Web 2.0 that have direct relevance to the enterprise.
Blogs and wikis provide a natural way to establish two-way communication. These tools give people an intuitive environment in which to share information and collaborate. Using a multiauthor system, people can easily contribute all types of content-text, video, pictures. Participants can continue the conversation, challenge each other and push ideas forward in a collaborative network.
For example, in a software company, users could share tips and tricks; developers could brainstorm ideas for the next release and ask customers to rate the priority or contribute enhancement suggestions. In a large global organization, project team members spread around the world could share information, files and ideas without meeting face-to-face in a conference room. Employees attending a sales conference could post pictures and text about experiences and invite customers to share ideas and impressions (and their own pictures or videos) to get immediate feedback about the latest campaigns.
Social Networking tools empower you to build virtual business (instead of purely social) networks of like-minded individuals. One of the better-known business examples is LinkedIn, which enables you to invite individuals to join your network; you can then see connections between the people you know and the people they know, providing new business opportunities. Social networking tools can help you, for example, find trustworthy vendor references. A project manager could build a team with the requisite expertise, and with the advantage of seeing who each person has worked with in the past (from whom, presumably, she could get more honest evaluations). Salespeople could find out which clients are attending the same conference, and set up meetings ahead of time- something you can do easily with a social networking tool called PairedUp.
Tagging enables individuals to categorize information in ways that make sense to them instead of trying to pigeonhole data into predefined categories. These user-generated taxonomies (or “folksonomies”) are related to their creators, so people can see content generated by the same individual or content in the same categories to follow an information trail of sorts. That maps well to the way you collect data and share knowledge in the enterprise to identify individuals (“who has been working with the plone CMS?) and related data (“what information do we have in-house about plone?”).
Tagging also makes use of a graphic called a tag cloud, which illustrates the popularity of each tag. The more often a tag is requested, the larger it appears in the cloud. This can help people identify the most popular tags quickly and can be useful in tracking content.
Rating gives community participants the ability to assign qualitative and popularity values to content, such as a simple up-or-down ranking system or the most often read help files. As your company generates content, a rating system provides a way for users to sift through it. It involves the idea that “the wisdom of the crowd” can help sort out the best material. For consultants, this could mean finding the best PowerPoint presentation on deploying Desktop Linux; for a help desk employee, it could mean finding the best answer to a query on how to troubleshoot a video card.
Social Bookmarking is a system for sharing browser bookmarks, made popular among consumers by De.licio.us and Furl. Marketing teams could use social bookmarks for competitive analysis to track what a competitor is doing; Sales could use it to learn and share information about targeted companies; knowledge workers could use the technology to track a particular subject such as Exchange Traded Funds or cell phones. What’s more, people can share these lists, and the data lives on even after an employee leaves the company.
RSS is the glue holding much of this together. RSS (Really Simple Syndication) pushes information to individuals using a subscription model. Just as you subscribe to a magazine, you can subscribe to a blog or to other social tools, and so can your customers, business partners and employees. RSS lets the enterprise keep others apprised of changes and it updates automatically (from e-commerce special pricing to software build status), bypassing the dependence on e-mail to share information.
There are more useful Enterprise 2.0 tools. One is searchable Web-based e-mail, which you can organize using tags, the most common example of which is Gmail. Web-based conferencing, such as WebEx, enables you to organize virtual meetings and demonstrations while providing the means for the speaker and participants to communicate via a built-in instant messaging client.
Mash-ups provide programming links to online applications. These are typically APIs that enable developers to customize the Web application for interesting and relevant usage in your organization. For instance, you could create a mash-up between your CRM system and Microsoft Virtual Earth to mark on the map where you have had successful sales over a given time period. Your company’s sales executives could see which regions are successful and which ones need a boost. Or you might combine this map technology with GPS to locate your delivery trucks at any given time. Mash-ups tend to be cheaper and lighter weight than most enterprise applications, offering an inexpensive way to develop custom applications for your organization.
Enterprise 2.0 removes the size and complexity of earlier systems. You don’t need experts such as systems analysts and consultants to make these systems work and to maintain them. Unlike most corporate initiatives, Enterprise 2.0 tools, at least in their current incarnation, are not expensive to implement.
By their nature, these tools don’t involve complex deployment and maintenance. You may be able to install pieces incrementally, starting small with an internal program before opening it up to outside participation. The tools are generally easy enough to use that they require little or no training. Unlike desktop deployments, using the Web to deploy enterprise tools means employees can access their critical data-whether that’s documents, RSS feeds, bookmarks or whatever-wherever they are, so long as they have Internet access.
Enterprise 2.0 also provides new avenues to open up a conversation with partners, suppliers or customers. Communication flows both ways, enabling you to share information and ideas. With these technologies, you could ask customers for pictures or videos using your products in interesting ways (and thus build brand equity with your customer base). Or you could share information with partners who are working on a project with your company. You can easily start a blog or wiki for a specific product category, enabling a small niche of your market to communicate, a process that would have been much more difficult and expensive using earlier Web tools.
There is risk associated with adopting any new technology, and Enterprise 2.0 is no different. Consider the following:
The industry’s still shaking out: To start, it’s a bit like 1999 right now. A gaggle of companies are vying for your attention, and the market still has a ways to go before it shakes out. Companies didn’t even start using the term Enterprise 2.0 until last year. That means it’s difficult for IT pros to evaluate technology and vendors.
There are security questions: This is probably the biggest outstanding issue with Enterprise 2.0 technology. How do you open up your enterprise to share information without exposing your infrastructure to rogues, misfits and malcontents? If you allow people to upload files to your system, how will you prevent malicious files from entering your network? While sharing content is a laudable idea, you still have to protect your company in the process; an open system such as this makes it a challenge to maintain security.
Vendors are beginning to develop enterprise-level delivery platforms, and security issues should abate. This happened with instant messaging when it moved from individuals (often teenagers) to the enterprise. (Just recently, for instance, Google acquired Postini, an enterprise-class e-mail security firm that could help provide enterprise security for Gmail and other Google Web applications.)
Not everyone is an expert: Some argue that expertise matters, and that not all content or opinions are created equal. While there are benefits related to opening up the conversation, not everyone actually knows what he is talking about, even if he pretends he does. Community policing does not always provide the necessary checks and balances to eliminate noise.
Losing control of content: One might argue that sharing content is, by definition, giving control of it to others. But lots of companies spend good money trying to create a message and to build a brand. Every word on the company website and in collateral publications is vetted and edited to maintain a consistent message. When you open up the conversation, for better or worse you lose control of that message, at least in ways you have previously defined it.
Losing IT control: Much of this technology happens outside the enterprise. It may be difficult for IT pros to give up control over the IT systems they depend on. Enterprise 2.0 is decentralized and ad hoc; it puts more control in the hands of the user and less in the IT department. It could be difficult for many to accept this cultural shift without some assurance that critical business systems will keep operating.
Some vendors are addressing control concerns by providing a dashboard that gives you control over which employees can access and use which tools, and this could help allay IT fears.
Like any project, you may want to start with a small internal project that addresses a real business problem around knowledge sharing. Blogs or wikis might be a good starting point because they are self-contained tools with content management, structure and tagging capability built right in. You could start in one department by providing blogs to employees to share ideas around a particular project, such as customer development in sales, competitive analysis in marketing, reducing health insurance costs in HR and so forth.
After you complete your internal “Beta” project and employees are comfortable making entries, responding to one another, leaving comments and organizing the content, you can think about how to expand the effort to include other Enterprise 2.0 tools, such as ratings and bookmarks. Eventually, you want to think about how to bring other departments onboard and down the road how to move outside the organization to involve customers, partners and suppliers. Starting small gives you a chance to see how people react to the tools, how to manage the process and develop a social system for engaging in this fashion (that is, how to play nicely online).
It would be impossible to give a list of all the players in all of the tool categories, so you should begin by looking at one area, such as blogs and wikis. A number of companies are developing enterprise-ready products. Aside from the usual suspects, like Microsoft Sharepoint and IBM’s Web 2.0 Goes to Work package for WebSphere, other companies working in this space include Social Text, Traction Software, iUpload and Moveable Type. Although these companies aren’t necessarily household names, each has been working for a number of years helping companies develop blogs and wikis in a business setting.
What should one look for in a vendor in this area?
There are so many vendors identifying themselves as Enterprise 2.0 companies that it’s not always easy to shake out the pretenders and to find the real deal. As an IT executive today, chances are you lived through the Internet bubble and you are reluctant to deal with a company that might not be around for the long haul. That said, you need to evaluate Enterprise 2.0 products just as you would any others.
Define your business problem and look for companies that can provide the best solution, whether that’s an established player like IBM or small company like PairUp. If you start off with a confined deployment, you can afford to make mistakes with a company. Also keep in mind that unlike large Enterprise applications, Enterprise 2.0 tools tend to be light-weight and are designed to be portable. If you make a mistake with a vendor, you won’t be stuck in an expensive conversion process. You can simply export your blog entries, your bookmarks and your tags and import them into whatever new system you have in place.
Even though Web 2.0 concepts have been in place for some years, applying them to the enterprise in an organized fashion under the Enterprise 2.0 umbrella is still very new. Ultimately, there is little doubt that there is inherent benefit in like-minded people networking and sharing information (whether internally or externally). How you implement this type of strategy is still open to question. But know that many people are using this technology now, and it behooves you to at least understand how to harness enthusiasm for this work style, and how it can help your company organize and share knowledge moving forward.