Web logs have become a powerful consumer technology in recent years and some businesses are adopting them to gather employee opinion. Danny Bradbury investigates how blogs can become a real business asset when they are used as a knowledge management tool
Web logs (blogs) may have started out as glorified online diaries but, like most othertechnologies,they havedevelopedvery quickly. You can now find specialist blogs on almost any subject and some bloggers have become authorities in their particular field.
When an innocuous and cheap software tool becomes the foundation for a powerful information sharing resource, it can only be a matter of time before companies begin to recognise its value. The question then becomes: what happens when blogging meets knowledge management?
Matt Mower, a developer and knowledge management specialist who works with knowledge management company Evectors, says that corporate blogging can tease new ideas out into the open.
The more people talk about their ideas, the more likely they are to find like-minded colleagues with whom they can collaborate on a project that could become the next profitable product.
Using blogs within an organisation can also help employees find information more quickly, he says, while watching what employees post on their blogs can also give senior management an insight into what employees are thinking.
However, employers need to be aware that a corporate blog needs some degree of organisation. David Gurteen, a knowledge management consultant who cut his teeth as international czar for Lotus in the early 1990s, says, "If users have technical blogs and are linking between them, it can be a bit of a mess. There is no control, because nothing is on a single server."
On the upside, creating a personal blog within a company can give a sense of ownership and enables people to express their ideas and thoughts with a more personal voice. Bloggers can become attached to their blogs and this can encourage them to write more regularly and in greater detail.
"Another point about web logs is the way communities form. Bulletin boards and conferences often have limitations as to who can use them. There is some element of command and control from the centre," Gurteen says. Blogs, on the other hand, tend to happen more organically.
Martin Roll, an e-business consultant specialising in knowledge management blogging (k-logging), emphasised the organic nature of blogging in a presentation at Blogtalk, a conference on blogging in Vienna in May. He suggested that corporate blogging will generally begin with a single blog focusing on a single project, but if this is successful, other people will also begin to blog.
Is blogging good for business?
One of the biggest barriers to a successful blogging environment is the wrong corporate atmosphere. If a company is fraught with political egotism and has a culture where mistakes are not tolerated, people will be afraid to speak out. Consequently, it will become more difficult to encourage employees to share their knowledge for fear of being ridiculed or chastised.
This can be a problem with any knowledge management technique, but blogs are particularly susceptible because they are so personal to each employee.
The other barriers to successful corporate blogging will arise if employees embrace the idea too enthusiastically. Ownership of a blog makes it tempting to enter personal information and, while this is to be actively encouraged so that employees can call their blogs their own, it introduces other dangers.
What if employees begin divulging inappropriate personal information, either about themselves or other employees? Will this render the company liable to lawsuits? What will happen if someone begins to question internal company policy or criticise management?
Formulating the right blogging policy
The best way to deal with such problems is to cut through the whole tangled mess by introducing a corporate blogging policy, according to Jeff Seul. Seul is vice-president, general counsel and secretary at Groove Networks, the collaborative software firm founded by Ray Ozzie, who was responsible for Lotus Notes.
Groove encourages its employees to use blogs hosted outside the organisation and has introduced a policy to outline what it will and will not allow.
A company should determine whether employees' blogs will be accessible to readers outside the firewall (or, as in Groove's case, hosted outside the company altogether), or available only to other employees. This should determine whether a blogging policy will forbid the posting of sensitive corporate information or not.
Using blogs for personal information alone might bring a feeling of camaraderie, empowerment and mutual interest into the workforce, but workers have to enter corporate knowledge to make it into a k-log. The problem is because blogs are generally edited by their authors, who tend to mix information on different topics, they are not particularly good at storing structured information, says Mower.
"Blogging is less about capturing tacit knowledge and more about building informal networks," he says.
"If you find an employee in the company that frequently blogs on a particular work topic, you might identify that employee as an expert in that field, especially if their work credentials support it or if they are working on a related project.
"If you create a link to the employee's blog in your own blog, their reputation will spread. Moreover, you can access any other experts that have been identified in the blog."
Mower also believes the informal nature of most blogs makes them more intuitive. "Blogging is not a good way to store codified knowledge, but it is a good way to store narrative knowledge," he says. Narrative (story or diary-like) knowledge is often easier to read than formal, textbook-like knowledge.
Turning a blog into a k-log
The real value for k-logs could come in merging them with more formal knowledge management processes. Using k-logs to eke out tacit knowledge from employees in an unstructured way at least means it is out there in the organisation.
Other cheap or free knowledge management technologies can then be used to form this knowledge into a more formal structure. Wikis, which are collaborative online information resources, can be used to edit information garnered from blogs into a more permanent record.
The intermediate step of finding the information to build into a Wiki has now been made easier. Evectors has released a tool called WWWW, which is based on its k-collector architecture. The tool allows k-loggers to define topics for their log entries so that they can be found more easily.
Entries from a built-in Wiki can also be edited if the information will be of use to a corporate blogger. The tool allows anyone to enter information into a Wiki, but over time Mower would like to refine the program to include reputation management features, so that only people scoring high enough in a certain topic will be able to edit Wiki entries on that topic.
The adoption of blogging for corporate purposes has been slow, although there have been some success stories. Macromedia is using blogs as a means of keeping customers in touch with company developments, while Google is rumoured to be using them to draw ideas from its developers, so that senior managers can cherry-pick the best ones.
The challenges - perceived time-wasting among employees, the lack of content control and the danger of inappropriate posts - could be outweighed by the benefits.
Blogging can give management a better view of the innovators within the company and their ideas, and can offer the ability to capture tacit information in an informal way so that it can be codified later on. Blogging can also create a better understanding of where the expertise on various topics lies within an organisation.
But before any of these advantages can be realised, a blog-friendly culture is vital - and that is the lowest-tech component of all.