Implementing Web 2.0 for fun and profit

Within certain circles, there is a passionate and wide-ranging discussion about how Web 2.0 technology will transform the way companies do business. While the debate won’t be settled soon, there can be no question that this technology is being embraced faster by consumers than by corporations. And that adoption pattern has significant implications, both for how technology enters the corporate environment, and for the competitive advantages early corporate adopters can gain.
At Prescient, we gather anecdotal insight into the varying acceptance rates between consumers and corporations in our seminars. We ask participants how many of them work in organizations that utilize blogs. We then ask how many people write their own blog. The ratio is usually 2:1 in favour of personal versus corporate blog usage.

If you believe that the purpose of a blog is to enable teenagers to gush about their favourite brand of jeans, you won’t be surprised by these acceptance patterns. But if you understand the productivity gains and cost savings that can be achieved with blogs and other social media, the ratio is puzzling. And, given this understanding, you would expect to see enlightened users of the technology bringing it into their corporate environment, whether or not that implementation was sanctioned by their employers.

A Gartner survey, reported in CIO, found that half of the respondents reported that more than 60 percent of their IT users were employing consumer-grade software, whether approved or not.

Speaking with dolphins

One reason why corporations may not be implementing Web 2.0 technology is that they either don’t understand its value, or they simply don’t know that the technology exists. Too often, early adopters fail to communicate the value proposition of the technology in language that holds the attention of executives. Listening to technology experts discuss software can sometimes seem like hearing dolphins communicate: there’s a lot of squeaking, and you know they’re really smart, but you don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.

Shane Schick, writing in, describes what happens when knowledgeable people start with the assumption that everyone knows what they’re talking about. He took  a group of Web 2.0 experts to a meeting with project managers to describe a new way of collaborating. “The minute Martin started talking about wikis, blogs and RSS,” writes Schick, “I could feel an emptiness in the room. It was the unmistakable sound of people zoning out. ‘How many people here have ever heard of a wiki?’ I asked, interrupting Martin. I think one hand went up. ‘How about RSS?’ No hands went up. My panel was visibly put out. These people weren’t the usual cast of converts to whom they regularly preached at industry conferences. These people hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. Until last night, they hadn’t ever really been offered the Kool-Aid before.”

For those employees who are enjoying the benefits of blogs and wikis, and wondering why their employers do not use them, they should ask if anyone in management has heard the value proposition explained in business terms. Or did they hear “dolphin speak” and assume the technology was a toy for geeks? If it’s the latter, the employee should develop a succinct case that is heavy on business metrics and light on techno-speak.

Measurable value

So what do users of Web 2.0 technology get that their employers do not? Properly applied, these tools offer transformative business performance, such as:

  • Cost savings. The Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) reports that as much as 75 percent of most companies’ intellectual property is contained in the messages and attachments they send through their e-mail systems. This e-mail abuse creates significant inefficiencies and hard costs for IT, and creates an easy justification for consumer-grade collaboration tools.  In a case study on its site, SocialText  describes the returns, the gaming division of Ziff Davis Media, achieved by implementing a wiki. Using Socialtext Workspace for group communications has reduced e-mail volume dramatically to result in soft cost savings in excess of $1 million per year for a 50 person team.
  • Improved knowledge management. In case you thought social networking was restricted to MySpace-type consumer applications, consider an article in CIO about how packaging food company Mars applied the principle of social network analysis (SNA) to improve its ability to innovate. Mars equipped 300 of its research scientists with RFID-enabled name tags at a networking event. The tags lit up each time the scientists met someone they didn’t know, and they could watch diagrams of their social networks form on giant screens at one end of the ballroom. The diagrams expanded like giant molecules each time a manager spoke with a person new to him or her. SNA provides insights into how departments or individuals work together, as well as identifying key experts. When combined with knowledge databases and portals, SNA helps companies find and utilize the internal knowledge needed to out-innovate their competition.
  • Productivity wins. Whether it’s the speed with which information can be posted and shared through a blog, or the efficiencies that can be won by communities of practice collaborating on a wiki, Web 2.0 technology offers tremendous productivity gains. An emerging trend that exemplifies these wins is “mash-ups”, a website or web application that combines content from more than one source. A leading example is, a developer of customer relationship management (CRM) software, which is using GoogleMaps to map business contact and leads. In a good example of how to integrate a blog into a marketing strategy, the code for various mash-ups is posted on the salesforce blog,.

Do it because it’s fun?

The gap in adoption between corporations and consumers can also be attributed to the process involved in acquiring and implementing technology. In business, there are multiple decision-makers who must carefully assess benefits, manage risk, be conscious of security, invest wisely and deploy resources in support of corporate goals. In the consumer market, there’s usually one decision-maker who is primarily driven by having fun.

While corporations must meet security and compliance requirements, some are learning to adopt the spirit of play that has driven the development of consumer applications. For example, Forbes describes how photo-sharing site added mapping to its site. “Our biggest category is travel,” says co-founder Chris McAskill. “We noticed our customers uploading maps into their albums to show where they’ve been. They fumble with Microsoft  Streets and Maps or whatever, but it’s not the same as having the actual photo spotted on a map and clicking it to see it big, scrolling, zooming.”

Based on this insight, Smugmug used Google Maps to launch a new service, called smugMaps. A user can either add an address or click a spot on the map to create an album. The software can also read the global positioning system (GPS) of a phone to tag a picture. “Honestly,” said McAskill, “we love Google Maps, and we’re looking for excuses to program them. The idea evolved as we had our fun.”

Corporations must continue to perform stringent analysis of technology, but they can learn from their employees about how to discover the benefits of the technology, which is to use it. Consumers may have started posting pictures to Flickr because it was fun, but they continued using it when they discovered that it was a fast and inexpensive way to share photos with far-flung friends and family.
An easy first step for an organization wanting to explore the benefits of improved collaboration would be to identify an established internal community of interest, ask them what consumer technology they like using and then ask them to use it within their group and see what benefits accrue.

Whether it's organizations adapting the process by which they evaluate and implement technology, or techies adapting the language they use to describe the value of Web 2.0, the benefits of blogs, wikis and social networking will prove so compelling that they will have a significant impact within organizations. “Emerging consumer applications, when adapted to the enterprise, can make workers more productive and cut IT costs,” according to CIO. “In fact, Gartner predicts that between 2007 and 2012, the majority of new information technologies that enterprises adopt will have their roots in the consumer market.”

Given these business rewards, the companies that adopt this technology sooner rather than later will gain significant competitive advantages. And they can do so by taking a simple step: asking their employees what technology they enjoy using.
Prescient Digital Media is a veteran web and intranet consulting firm with 10+ years of rich history. We provide strategic Internet and intranet consulting, planning and communications services to many Fortune 500 and big brand clients, as well as small and medium-sized leaders.