Drive business change with Web 2.0

Web 2.0 will alter the way that businesses develop and apply innovative ideas, according to General Motors systems and technology officer Fred Killeen

During the 1990s business leaders grappled with how they would make money from the web. Bricks and mortar were old hat as dotcom mania raged. Every company needed a 21st century, blue sky web strategy every organisation had to do e-commerce. The dotcom bomb brought everyone back to Earth with a bang.

The reality that organisations live with today is a balance between the real world and cyberspace, of traditional business operations complemented by web technologies.

The web has given businesses a greater understanding of the customer, the extended supply chain and the concept of self-service. Now a new type of web is emerging, one where communities can develop, where information can be readily shared, and new ideas can be spawned and evolve.

It is called Web 2.0, and among those keen to exploit it is Fred Killeen, General Motors' chief systems and technology officer, information systems and services. His role at the motor company includes assessing emerging technologies and looking at how they can be applied to become part of GM's mainstream systems and infrastructure.

There are numerous examples of web communities, but for GM, Web 2.0 is all about collaborative working.

So can a site like Flickr, which allows users to share photographs, the Myspace social networking site or the YouTube video sharing site that Google recently acquired, really lead the way in showing businesses how to use collaborative methods more effectively?

Killeen thinks so. "Web 2.0 has generally been used in the consumer space. My 10-year old daughter uses Wikipedia, for example," he said. For business, however, GM is interested in how people use the technology, and their behaviour online. "Much of the innovation on the web is happening in businesses, rather than the consumer space," he said.

While the internet is like a network of roads linking everyone together, what excites Killeen about Web 2.0 is the engagement model through which people socialise on the internet. He believes that understanding how these social networks operate will benefit GM.

"At GM we link our people across countries, time zones and even company boundaries," said Killeen. GM, like many traditional corporations, is organised hierarchically, and Killeen believes the lessons being learned from Web 2.0, will enable people to work together without hierarchical boundaries.

An example of where hierarchical structure works against the company is an off-site meeting with one of GM's outsourcers. The challenge Killeen sees is in bringing people together as one team in order to collect the best input: "We may have a systems architect in Australia who is otherwise unable to give his feedback on a decision," said Killeen.

An example of Web 2.0 technology that Killeen feels could work well within many business contexts is a wiki. The basic idea behind a wiki is that any end-user can make changes to a shared webpage using basic web editing tools that run within a browser, without the need to install specialist software or attend a training course. This makes it extremely easy to add information and share ideas.

He believes wikis, managed internally, can ensure people talk the same language by having an agreed definition for terminology. A standard definition, published on a wiki, is particularly useful during a heated discussion within a meeting, Killeen said. It can avoid the common situation where people hold an offsite meeting then argue for half an hour on terminology.

Another exciting area of Web 2.0 technology for Killeen is "folksonomies" as used on the Flickr.com picture sharing site or the URL sharing site, del.icio.us. Folksonomies are descriptions of items of information (known as a taxonomy), which are created by internet users.

On Flickr, users are able to upload photographs and share them with friends and family or make them publicly available. One of the ways photographs can be found on this site is through tags, descriptions of the photographs, that the user submits.

While it takes time for an expert to create a company taxonomy in order to define how data is tagged, folksonomies do not require a defined taxonomy. Instead, people add their own definitions to the information they find. Over time, people who access the data can amend the tags so that the definition becomes more specific. This enables people to find documents or, in the case of Flickr, a picture, without having to enter the exact keyword, as in traditional search engines.

Innovation is happening much faster on the internet, compared to the speed with which new application software is being released. For example, "Google's search engine is being optimised daily," said Killeen.

The challenge Killeen faces at GM is how to drive Web 2.0 innovation when working with commercial software providers. Killeen has some ideas about where Web 2.0 technologies could be deployed, such as using folksonomies in a document management system, rather than the deeply structured taxonomy used to tag documents.

Web 2.0 will bring a whole host of issues into the business world, and while there are clearly business benefits from getting communities of individuals to work together, there is a downside. "The power of Wikipedia is that people debate the accuracy of a definition," Killeen said.

Such collaboration should improve the accuracy of a definition. However, "People with different political or religious views can drive an agenda," he said.

Another problem is how to audit changes to data. Killeen said people have yet to understand how information lifecycle management would work for a wiki, since, by its very nature, the wiki is content that constantly gets updated.

What is certain, as far as Killeen can see, is that "Web 2.0 will drive change in the way companies do things."

Along with his role as chief systems and technology officer, Killeen is also responsible for the systems development process and application architecture for the information systems and services organisation at GM.

He is currently leading the development of standardised architectural and programme management processes for systems development that will form the foundation for standardised interaction with GM's suppliers.

Comment on this article: computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk

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