Making Web 2.0 work in business

Two years ago analyst Gartner launched its annual European software jamboree with a big push on Web 2.0.

Two years ago analyst Gartner launched its annual European software jamboree with a big push on Web 2.0.

According to Gartner, enterprise application mashups were to rely on a range of technologies that IT departments could already implement, including service oriented architectures, which could split off application functions and allow them to be published to other applications and presented in a web interface.

Mashups are likely to be familiar to most people, as they have become commonplace on the consumer-facing internet.

The most popular approach is to combine the application interface from Google Maps with other sources of data. In this way, online travel provider Opodo has created Escapemap, which presents flight search results on a map. Another example is weatherbonk.com, which feeds global weather data onto a Google map.

Although potential is there, businesses have been slower to develop internal mashups of their applications, according to Niko Drakos, research director of social software at Gartner.

"There are early adopters, but generally it is not widely used. There are a lot of governance issue around doing new things with enterprise applications. This will be better suited to early adopters of portal technology, but other organisations have more fundamental problems to deal with," he says.

The early adopters are taking advantage of this side of Web 2.0, which promises "loosely coupled" applications. These can allow developers to build new applications, for new processes or job roles, by combining data from internal sales figures, customer relationship management systems and data from external sources for example.

The most often quoted source of external data is geographical data from Google, which it uses for its mapping service.

Ed Parsons, geo-spatial technologist with Google, says firms already accustomed to using software as a service, such as salesforce.com, were now understanding the advantage of application mashups. "We are beginning to see salesforce.com customers doing it, by combining mapping data from Google with their sales applications."

Companies can benefit from this approach because they can see geographic patterns in customer behaviour and better target their marketing or customers relationship spending, Parsons says.

There has been some interest from more mainstream business application suppliers, such as SAP and Oracle, he says.

"The potential is there but you need to get the whole value chain geo-spatially coded. Often they are not particularly well coded in these databases," he says.

Brendan Tutt, portal and social media network business leader for IBM, says IT departments are beginning to see the mashup model as a way of relieving pressure on their work-load.

Tutt has found that organisations that were already exposing business data as a web service were finding that it was easy to build new application rapidly by combining different sources of business data in a mashup. With mashups, IT departments were better able to see where the business drivers for new applications lay, he says.

"When somebody publishes a mashup, it goes back up on to the catalogue and other users can rate it, another feature of Web 2.0.

"If IT departments start to see a strong demand for a particular mashup, then they can develop it into a well governed application portal in the mainstream production environment."

While businesses struggle with the "programmable" web, businesses are finding it easier to benefit from the other side of Web 2.0, that of social networking, collaboration and peer review.

Gartner's Drakos says a lot of businesses are now taking advantage of Web 2.0, mostly those that have a strong online presence enhanced by blogs, wikis and feedback from user-generated content.

"The same kind of technologies are beginning to make their way more slowly for use internally though intranets and browser-based applications," Drakos says.

So far this approach has had the most impact in media and entertainment industries where firms can get feedback on a new product or service and can check the market reaction before they launch it.

The social aspect of Web 2.0 can help organisations with their internal processes by allowing employees to record their own experiences on blogs and wikis. "Some are unreliable, some are half-baked or just wrong however, because [there are so many contributors] you are building a knowledge repository that becomes more structured as time goes by. That becomes a valuable business asset that can be used by project teams and to train new starters."

Businesses can also help define new processes by seeing what their employees are focusing on in blogs and wikis. Well defined processes can be managed from the top down, but new unfamiliar processes benefit from engagement in social networking, Drakos says.

This is where the two sides of Web 2.0, the social networking aspect, and the programmable internet side, begin to come together.

IBM's Tutt says more people are coming into the workplace who are used to social networking environments such as Facebook, which allow them to add applications.

They can bring internet information together with RSS feeds and services such as iGoogle, and they expect to be able to do the same in their business IT environment, he says.

These "super-users" can help other employees benefit from Web 2.0 and improve overall acceptance of these technologies.

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