Web 2.0 can no longer be ignored as a passing fad, but what are the implications of this disruptive technology for Irish organisations?
Podcasts, RSS, blogs, wikis, mash-ups, social media, P2P. If you had uttered these words in a business meeting 10 or even five years ago, you would probably have been greeted with blank stares and puzzled looks. Today they have become part of the lexicon of the modern internet, and businesses throughout the world are showing an increasing interest in what these technologies – collectively known as Web 2.0 or social networking software – have to offer.
But while there may be considerable hype and excitement about Web 2.0 there are still many uncertainties about how far and how fast such technologies will go. “I think organisations are still just feeling their way. Some of them are experimenting with the collaborative tools that are available but really I don’t think we have any widespread applications that are mainstream,” observes Dr Joe Peppard, professor of information systems at Cranfield School of Management, UK.
This is certainly true of Irish businesses, which have been slow to embrace Web 2.0 thus far. For a sense of where Ireland is going with these technologies, Tom Raftery, the blogger and internet consultant, says US trends offer the best guide.
“We’re like the States, except about 15 months behind in terms of uptake. You only have to look at the political scene there: both Clinton and Obama have their blogs and their videos and podcasts and so on. And all the big American companies have social media strategies; all the Fortune 500 companies would be there or thereabouts.”
According to Raftery, strategies vary by company but one common element is external-facing blogs, used both to publicise and get feedback on new products. “Microsoft is particularly good at this. It has a blog for each product and it announces new versions of products on the blog before they are released. It gets tons of feedback from users, which it then uses to shape the product. It’s a form of market research and it’s free.”
While the external application of Web 2.0 technologies might be garnering the most attention, Web 2.0 is transforming internal communication within companies as well, many of which are using internal blogs, podcasts and wikis (applications that let multiple users contribute to and edit the same document) to share information among employees.
This has given rise to a new term, ‘Enterprise 2.0’, which is “the packaging of Web 2.0 technologies in both corporate IT and workplace environments”, according to Dr John Breslin, an adjunct lecturer and researcher at the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI) at NUI Galway and co-founder of Boards.ie, Ireland’s largest message board community. “Just as in Facebook or Twitter – where people follow what others are doing and see what interesting stuff they’ve made or found through activity streams – you can find out similar things in the workplace via Enterprise 2.0 usage: you can ask people the status of their projects, discover what they’re working on, see where they are travelling and share in things that they’ve learned,” he says.
“As an opportunity to create an internal network for sharing information and expertise, Enterprise 2.0 tools allow organisations to share information within a business’s own walls, to become an efficient way to mine for in-house expertise (‘expert finding’) and to reduce the time spent mailing documents and emailing comments. In terms of cutting across barriers, these tools can help to encourage employees, alumni, interns, new hires, retired staff and other stakeholders to interact with each other,” he continues.
Another area where Web 2.0 is starting to have an impact is the innovation process within organisations. One of the big trends in innovation is open innovation. It’s where organisations recognise that they don’t have all of the knowledge that’s required to create the next innovation. So to drive innovation, they foster so-called ‘creation networks’ consisting of suppliers, business partners, customers and perhaps even competitors. Supported by Web 2.0, these are starting to appear in a number of industries, notes Peppard. “Open innovation is where you’re trying to capture a diverse spectrum of knowledge from a wide spectrum of individuals. You’re trying to mobilise hundreds or thousands of independent entities in pursuit of collaborative, distributed, cumulative innovation,” he says.
Web 2.0 tools create the ‘electronic ecosystem’ in which the creation networks exist. Whereas time differences and physical distance make it impossible for large, distributed innovation networks to exist as a physical entity, online collaboration tools have solved this problem. “In the virtual world these barriers don’t exist,” says Peppard.
One of the companies to have embraced the open innovation model is Sogeti, the IT services unit of Capgemini consulting. The company recently signed a major contract with IBM to use IBM’s new ‘cloud’ computing data centre in Dublin for a six-month trial period. This facility is billed as an ‘ideas factory’ which hosts a range of Web 2.0 social networking technologies that allow IBM clients and partners to develop and refine new business ideas. The pilot kicked off in mid-April with a three-day online brainstorm involving 18,000 Sogeti employees in 14 countries.
Michiel Boreel, Sogeti’s chief technology officer, told Knowledge Ireland that Sogeti was investing a considerable amount in the project but admitted that the outcome was far from certain. “With all new technologies it’s very difficult to determine what the value of them is and how these technologies will impact on business,” he says.
Nevertheless, Boreel is something of an evangelist for the Web 2.0 cause. He sees these technologies as another example of the ‘consumerisation’ of technologies whereby people rather than businesses are the lead adopters. In this context, he sees a parallel between the way Web 2.0 technologies are entering organisations today and the way the internet itself did in the early Nineties. “The internet entered into companies through the users. They bought the modem and connected it to the computer at work and, guess what, they were online. Only after the IT department realised that this was not the way to provide reliable services did they step in. With Web 2.0 it’s happening in exactly the same way.”
Boreel believes that businesses have been slow to grasp the full implications of these technologies. “They see it probably too much as just an extension of email or whatever, whereas I think these tools, because they are so inherently collaborative, actually change the structure of organisations. The transparency that they create can really be quite revolutionary.”
But revolution can be negative as well as positive and Web 2.0 enthusiasts have been finding that openness and transparency can have its downsides too, especially where corporate blogging is concerned. This was highlighted by the recent case of the anonymous US blogger ‘Troll Tracker’ whose blog criticised patent trolling – the practice of buying up patents and then suing companies for infringing them. The blog author eventually revealed himself as Cisco patent attorney Rick Frenkel in March after several irate patent lawyers across the US, one of whom had received a death threat, mounted a campaign to unmask him. Frenkel and Cisco are now defendants in a pair of defamation lawsuits, and there may be more to come.
So while the corporate blogging genie is definitely out of the bottle, the Cisco case shows the risks of blogging anonymously, both to the bloggers themselves and their employers. To Peppard’s mind, the Cisco case shows that “we’re still grappling with understanding the consequences both within the organisation and wider societal implications of these new technologies.”
Organisations are also learning, he adds, how to implement these technologies in a way that delivers the desired benefits. Although the technologies are new, the old rules of IT implementation still apply and that means identifying what changes will be needed within the organisation to drive value from the technology.
“Ultimately benefits and value will come from the changes that the organisation will need to make, and when we look at Web 2.0 the changes will need to happen in terms of how people collaborate. They may not be a culture of collaboration in the organisation. There may not be a culture of senior executives using technology. You may have the best technologies implemented in the most efficient and effective way but if they are not used, no benefits are ever going to accrue.”
What’s in Web 2.0
Blogs (short for web logs) are online journals of diaries hosted on a website and often distributed to other sites or readers using RSS (see below)
Mash-ups are aggregations of content from different online sources to create a new service. An example would be a program that pulls apartment listings from one site and displays them on a Google map to show where the apartments are located
Peer-to-peer networking (sometimes called P2P) is a technique for efficiently sharing files (music, video or text) either over the internet or within a closed set of users
Podcasts are audio or video recordings – a multimedia form of a blog or other content. They are often distributed through an aggregator, such as iTunes
RSS (Really Simple Syndication) allows people to subscribe to online distributions of news, blogs, podcasts or other information
Social networking refers to systems that allow members of a specific site to learn more about other members’ skills, talents, knowledge or preferences. Commercial examples include LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace. Some companies use these systems internally to identify experts
Web services are software systems that make it easier for different systems to communicate with one another automatically in order to pass information or conduct transactions
Wikis are systems for collaborative publishing – Wikipedia is the most high-profile example. These allow many authors to contribute to an online document or discussion.
Source: How Businesses are Using Web 2.0 – A McKinsey Global Survey (abridged)
By Brian Skelly, John Kennedy and Marie Boran
This article appears in the latest edition of Knowledge Ireland, the bi-monthly information and strategy magazine, which is in shops now. To read the full version of the story in the digital edition, go to www.knowledgeireland.com.