Harness the power of collaboration

Fifteen years since the invention of the worldwide web, the growth of web logs, wikis, chatrooms, peer-to-peer websites, and multiple-player gaming environments is paving the way for new web applications for business.

Fifteen years since the invention of the worldwide web, the growth of web logs, wikis, chatrooms, peer-to-peer websites, and multiple-player gaming environments is paving the way for new web applications for business.

Their common, collaborative or community-based characteristics have spawned social networking and Web 2.0, the next version of the web.

The concept is not a new one, given the fact that the internet was first conceived as a knowledge-sharing and communications platform. Likewise, e-mail was the first and most influential communication tool to harness its power. But the proliferation and uptake of new communication and collaboration tools has spawned this latest wave of virtual interaction.

IT directors should be looking at how these developments could be deployed within their organisations to improve the way people work.

One example of this is the use of Ajax (Asynchronous Javascript and XML), which has existed in Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser since 2001, to build interactive web applications that process user requests immediately.

Today, most browsers support Ajax, allowing web page content to update immediately without making users wait for a whole new page to load. Google Maps is an example of this, where Ajax allows users to change views and manipulate maps in real time.

What is clear is that through Web 2.0 the web is becoming a more mature environment for application development.

"This development is in part due to rich-client applications that use technologies such as Dynamic HTML and Ajax to improve the user experience," said Neil Ward-Dutton, research director at analyst firm MWD.

Such technologies use the power of the web as a universal network, collecting people and content together to harness their collaborative power. "Web 2.0 is about the creation of open, global application and information platforms that have more to do with collaborative working than with the more traditional publishing concept of the web," said Ward-Dutton.

"Changing web pages or applications used to be a specialist task, now blogs, wikis and other social networking tools are providing a platform for social interaction that is a no-brainer in terms of usability."

This level of accessibility is something that has never been available before, with almost anyone capable of using these tools.

Social networking tools have, until recently, been limited in the main to interpersonal or socially driven community-based interaction - more than 48 million sites populate the "blogosphere", according to Technorati, a website dedicated to tracking and searching for blogs.

Most organisations are aware of the viral nature and marketing power of blogs. Some are all too familiar with horror stories about companies crippled by product inadequacies highlighted by blogging consumers and disseminated around the world faster than any newswire or product recall.

The infamous example of US company Kryptonite is often used as a cautionary tale that organisations ignore social networking tools at their peril. In 2004, the bike lock manufacturer was forced to spend £5.4m on a product recall and exchange programme as a result of a blog posting that claimed its premium locks could be picked with a plastic pen top. This also resulted in an out-of-court settlement for a customer's £108m class-action lawsuit.

Cautionary tales such as Kryptonite's have compelled companies to look at how much the social networking phenomenon is influencing customers and affecting share price, brand perception and, ultimately, the bottom line. Many firms now understand the value of monitoring, engaging and interacting with external, public blogs.

Using such technology within the boundaries of a business pales into insignificance in comparison with its pervasive use throughout the blogosphere and the emergence of Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia built collaboratively using wiki software. But more and more organisations are looking at how social networking tools can benefit their own, internal processes.

"The web is the natural home of social networking tools," said social software consultant Suw Charman. "The biggest challenge is to make these things useful for business users."

Social networking takes advantage of the all the technologies collectively referred to as Web 2.0, which allow for the capture, management and sharing of information more intuitively. "It is not just wikis or blogs, but also RSS [Really Simple Syndication] feeds. Businesses lose a lot of power to communicate without this type of tool," said Charman.

"Every business has a growing amount of digitally based content, and many are starting to ask themselves, 'how are we going to enable access to that content?'"

Charman said some companies had been experimenting with wikis and blogs for years. "But the problem is that using these tools on an enterprise scale is tricky - scaling is always an issue. Certain tools are not suitable for business use because they are not designed to be used behind a firewall, or to have 100 users running off one instance of the software, for example.

"There are a whole different set of issues you have to deal with compared to running this stuff as an individual user from a web server. Latency issues [delays in application response times], for example, can put potential corporate users off," she said.

"You should use a number of factors to decide which of the enterprise blogging or wiki packages is best for your needs. These include the number and type of users, the size of the deployment, and the intended use for the tools."

Global investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort has been using wikis since 1997. It called in Charman a couple of years ago when it decided to expand their use after realising how useful and popular they were for staff. The bank found that staff relied less on their e-mail, instead using wikis for managing meetings, compiling agendas, distributing minutes, brainstorming, publishing ideas and creating presentations.

The then Dresdner Kleinwort global chief information officer JP Rangaswami said, "Because we are regulated, we need to make sure that everything we do is recordable, archivable and retrievable. We need to ensure that we prevent market abuse, avoid any risk of breaking down Chinese walls, correctly manage confidential information, and yet still have better workflow."

There are three main types of social networking software, but not all are suitable for large enterprises, said Charman. Among these, the blogosphere has spawned free blog publishing software suppliers that are looking to break into the enterprise market.

Charman said WordPress, for example, is a popular tool that is good from a single-user point of view. She recommended evaluating a recently launched multi-user version that could be suitable for some simple, small-scale deployments.

Moveable Type is another option. It has attempted to move from being one of the favourite platforms for individual bloggers to developing more business-focused functionality. "It has a licensed, enterprise version that is highly customisable and easy to use for those who text knowledge," said Charman.

However, she warned the special markup punctuation needed with this type of tool to indicate formatting such as bold or italic type within a wiki (rather like coding text for the HTML format) could put off new users.

Dresdner Kleinwort had been using a combination of content management and publishing software that included Documentum, Media Surface and Frontpage to maintain a static intranet. Its first foray into using wikis was provided by enterprise social networking tools supplier Socialtext.

But it was not until the supplier released a Wysiwyg editing interface in January 2006 to translate typing in much the same way as word processing software automates the formatting of content, that the bank saw uptake and usage rise to include nearly a third of all its 6,000 employees around the world. In fact, wiki usage in the bank rose by 30% within two months of introducing the Wysiwyg editor.

The market for enterprise social networking software tools is growing, with suppliers such as Traction joining the likes of Socialtext in providing purpose-built tools for organisations that want to replace unstructured communication tools, such as e-mail, with something more sophisticated. They offer the granularity of control and the permissioning and workflow structure of other enterprise-scale software products.

It can be difficult to force new tools on a user community, but they could be invaluable for managing knowledge and content if end-users are given proper incentives.

UK delivery company eCourier is using Traction's Teampage project management blog software. The web-based despatch firm has been using the system to speed the development process of its bespoke, mission-critical IT systems between teams around the world.

Jay Bregman, chief technology officer at eCourier, said, "We are a small, cash-strapped new company, so every penny we spent on supporting the development process was important. We started with a five-user trial of Teampage, but now people are really used to this kind of interaction. And I have found it more collaborative and easier to use than Microsoft Sharepoint or Project software.

"Our developers in the UK, Italy and Germany now have a consistent view of development projects regardless of language barriers that is searchable, and provides invaluable background for new starters. And we have found we can customise it as much as we want."

Vote for your IT greats

Who have been the most influential people in IT in the past 40 years? The greatest organisations? The best hardware and software technologies? As part of Computer Weekly’s 40th anniversary celebrations, we are asking our readers who and what has really made a difference?

Vote now at: www.computerweekly.com/ITgreats

Read more on Business applications