A new form of obsessive compulsive disorder is afflicting the workplace. You may have noticed that some employees begin to twitch and jitter if they have not checked Facebook in the past 10 minutes. But although the social networking craze has reached epidemic proportions, the chief executive is more likely to wonder if the much-hyped Web 2.0 can bolster the books.
As with the with dotcom era, the flannel surrounding Web 2.0 can obscure any vision of how it can help a business achieve its goals.
According to Jeffrey Hammond, senior analyst with Forrester, Web 2.0 technology offers big rewards. These include "committed customers, more productive employees, and empowered communities that increase the rate of innovation around corporate assets such as products and historical data".
This all sounds good, but perhaps a little vague. When people think of Web 2.0, they are most likely to think of Facebook, Myspace and various blogging sites. Oliver Young, an analyst with Forrester, says these preconceptions of the uses of Web 2.0 have prevented some people in business from exploiting its power.
"There is scepticism across the board. Most people's understanding of it comes from the consumer world, where blogs are a personal diary, and not business related. That gives people the wrong starting point when it comes to thinking about these tools in the enterprise, so they think they are not applicable to business," he says.
So what is Web 2.0? Many observers are sceptical that Web 2.0 is anything different to what has come before, or is definable at all. The father of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, says the term Web 2.0 is "a piece of jargon".
Yet it has become ubiquitous enough to take on a life of its own, with two prominent aspects. First is the social-networking side, exemplified by the popularity of Facebook and Myspace, each of which boasts tens of millions of users. Blogs and wikis form a part of Web 2.0, and these are often called "user generated content".
Some businesses are succeeding by weaving these ideas into their online strategy. ArenaFlowers.com, a firm selling and delivering flowers online, uses blogs to improve the site's ranking on internet searches. Sam Barton, head of design and development at the firm, says nearly 30% of the site's traffic comes from searches. "The blog is a key part of that, but they have to be from the heart and be real, so users engage with them. However, we do not miss a trick in making sure they link back to the site."
One firm seeking to take advantage of the new richness of the internet interface afforded by these technologies is Brighter Business, an insurance firm targeting SMEs.
It uses the service oriented architecture concept to combine its richer web interface with its business applications. Rob Jordan, head of technology at Brighter Business, says that despite the complexity of business insurance the system allows them to offer more than 60 dynamic, industry-specific question sets and 12 types of insurance cover.
Working with Edge IPK, an internet software and consultancy firm, Bright Business was able to offer intelligent forms that tailored questions in response to information already given. "We were able to hide questions that were not relevant and reveal only the relevant ones and do it in a smooth way. Ajax allowed us to offer this smoother experience," Jordan said.
The "call me back" button allows customers to talk to advisers about their cover with having to re-enter any data, improving conversion of website visits into sales, Jordan says.
The system will now allow their insurance quote application to be combined with other websites offering services to small businesses. Brighter Business is already in discussion with a number of channels and partners, Jordan says.
Although adding social networking to the site is further away, Jordan says the idea has potential in gaining loyalty of a small business customer base. "Word of mouth is very effective in the SME market, and we are looking at social networking to capture that, although we have nothing specific planned at the moment."
Selling the concept of Web 2.0 with ArenaFlowers.com and Brighter Business was not such a challenge for the IT teams involved because commerce was part of these companies' plans from the offset.
However, older, more established businesses are also getting into Web 2.0. Law Firm Reynolds Porter Chamberlain has used these technologies to create an subscription-based extranet that also allows its lawyers to update information on a peer-to-peer basis.
Prompted by a new Financial Services Authority (FSA) directive that determines that insurers and their clients should have better knowledge of the contract before cover starts, Reynolds Porter Chamberlain, with the help of RedDot, a provider of enterprise content management systems, has built an extranet that attaches commercial and legal case history to clauses within insurance contracts. This is kept up-to-date by Reynolds Porter Chamberlain lawyers and helps insurers, lawyers and re-insurers more efficiently assess risk before contracts are signed.
Since the extranet went live in January 2007, 17 subscribing companies have already signed up for the service, and more than 100 individual users are benefiting from its services.
Julie Berry, IT director at RPC, says, "The lawyers add to the content themselves, because we did not want a system where IT had to become involved."
The Web 2.0 system was easy to sell to the business because the idea came from a senior partner, although it was not expressed in the Web 2.0 lingo. "Nine out of ten times, the way we deliver systems starts with [the business] saying what they need."
Although Berry saw great potential for expanding social networking within the legal profession, it must overcome some barriers before it is accepted. "Lawyers are very intelligent people and they like to create and come up with ideas themselves, so discussion and networking is very good. However, there are legal obligations to make sure are sourcing the right information from the right person. It is not as it in education where people come up with and share ideas. In law there is a risk of getting sued: there is a right way and a wrong way and people can claim against you if you get it wrong."
Forrester's Oliver Young, says the best way to get a business case together for a Web 2.0 project is to start small. "Some of these technologies require large investments, others may have more targeted deployment," he says. "A wiki can be valuable to just two people, whereas social networking might need the whole company on board, so it is more difficult and costly.
"Look for targeted deployment. Use software that is cheap, open source or comes as a service. Start with a defined problem you want to fix. If you solve it, then you have a business case, if not, then you have not wasted much."
IT departments can start by experimenting on themselves, he says. "Wikis can be useful for project management or helpdesk issues. You can then look for similar issues in the business to use the same tools for, or publicise your success and wait for them to come to you. You might have people beating down the door. It can start to snow-ball."
The technology can be applicable to very different business problems. Although it can make a general contribution to productivity, it is not easy to see how it helps the top line or revenue growth, Young says.
"The metrics can be across the board, but if you are looking for hard return on investment it can be difficult to measure. But it is worth keeping in mind that the return does not need to be so big if the investment is very small."
Any IT directors who believe they can ignore Web 2.0 should think again, Young says. For now, Web 2.0 will offer advantage, but in the longer term it will become engrained business tools just like e-mail is today.
Selling the business benefits of Web 2.0
According to the Forrester paper Social Computing Dresses Up For Business published in September last year, enterprise Web 2.0 can improve five important activities that every business does on a regular basis.
- Content creation and publishing. Web 2.0 technologies allow faster, richer, and more collaborative content creation, as well as simple tools and processes for publishing content. Blogs and wikis improve how people collaborate, because content creation, editing, approval, publishing, and management can all take place within the same application.
- Team co-ordination. Using the multi-editor capabilities in wikis, people can add basic structure and use the tool as a simple team workspace. This is more structured than sending file attachments through e-mail and is more accessible than traditional team spaces like Microsoft SharePoint and Lotus QuickPlace.2
- Proactive information delivery. RSS feeds allow people to pull in the information they deem relevant to their job, whether from enterprise applications or external sources.
- Information location. As with Del.icio.us on the public internet, tagging provides the ability to mark the location of information as with a bookmark. In business, tagging allows a piece of content to be marked multiple times providing multiple paths to find the information later. Over time, content can be defined by the tags assigned to it, and tag clouds can be generated that provide a visual indication of the subject matter that people can use to quickly and easily establish context and relevancy.
- Communities of interest. Building communities of interest and practice to improve learning and innovation across departmental, geographic, and hierarchical boundaries is one of the key benefits Web 2.0 brings to a large organisation. Public-facing technologies like Facebook have proved effective at building communities of interest and similar functionality help business.