Sports teams form huddles to discuss tactics. One UK-based start-up has recognised that business people do the same, forming creative, task-based teams to hothouse ideas or work on business projects. Such team work might be easy internally, face to face in an office - should your infrastructure and culture support it - but is less easy when teams are distributed globally and involve networks of partners and suppliers.
London-based Huddle.net was formed two and a half years ago by CEO Alastair Mitchell and CTO Andy McLoughlin. The company offers private online workspaces for secure team collaboration, knowledge management and group discussion, plus a variety of Web 2.0 tools, such as wikis. It targets all types of organisation.
In October 2008, Huddle became the first non-Silicon Valley company to partner with LinkedIn, the social platform for business networking. The following month it was named in Gartner's "magic quadrant" for social software.
"We [Mitchell and McLoughlin] were both working in large companies," says Mitchell. "I was managing a team of 300 people. That company found it hard to work with its partners and customers using traditional means: phone calls, face-to-face meetings, teleconferences, and so on, and we found we began using social technologies such as Facebook to communicate rather than more inward-facing enterprise systems."
Anecdotally, this is true for many companies: Web 2.0 adoption often comes from the bottom-up rather than a top-down, strategic decision.
So why is it easier for some to work "socially" than to use on-premise applications? "It is about globalised work and sharing documents. A huddle is a secure workspace on the web, and in each of your huddles you bring together all the people you want to work with - on the internet it does not matter where they are. You have access to whiteboards, wikis, documents, and so on, so it is like working in the same room as them."
Nevertheless, security remains top of most strategic IT managers' list of priorities. "Security is the biggest single issue," agrees Mitchell, "it is our whole business. Even one failure would be a critical failure." At this point, he repeats the mantra of the hosted service: that hosted applications are more secure than most enterprises because they have to be.
The security question
That may be true, but the last two years have shaken public confidence in data protection generally, not to mention witnessed high-profile brands such as Virgin Atlantic and British Airways devalued by staff indiscretion on social networks such as Facebook. The issue is human error and mismanagement rather than technology.
Mitchell says that security is built into every aspect of Huddle. Far from being open groups that anyone can join or abuse (as is often the case with online groups and discussion boards), Huddle allows users to set strict permissions: who can and cannot see data, or read but not edit, and so on. "You have to be invited into a Huddle space and authenticated," says Mitchell, "and then everything you do is audited and can be controlled by other users and by the manager of that workspace. You can have it very open at one level all the way down to very locked down."
An alternative to enterprise IT
For some sceptical businesses, another underlying issue is that Web 2.0 technologies and processes favour flat organisations and peer-to-peer interaction, which can be anathema for large, hierarchical enterprises with top-heavy management and a disenfranchised workforce - one that is "partitioned off" from the strategic or creative process. The other challenge for such an enterprise is that on-premise systems tend to represent the organisations they serve, and so rigid business practices become encoded or hardwired into the system itself and stifle other ways of working.
"Enterprises now come to us and want to get the best out of their partners and suppliers," says Mitchell. "For example, LinkedIn wanted to grow beyond mere sharing of CVs and contacts to sharing work via their platform."
Huddle claims that far from being a time-wasting exercise, Web 2.0 technologies make business communication more efficient as "reply all" e-mails become pointless and everything rests in a single place. Internal e-mail traffic can be slashed by as much as 50%, says the company.
He cites Procter & Gamble as a good example of Web 2.0 usage, "The Connect and Develop platform invites in partners and suppliers. It is all about meeting in the middle and being outward-facing, not inward-facing."