A Texas-based start-up company called nGenera is unlikely to mean much to most UK IT directors. But many will have heard about one of the US technology company's management team - Don Tapscott, the business guru and co-author of the hit book Wikinomics, which examines the economics of working on the next generation of the web.
nGenera is one of the newest and keenest supporters of web services technology. Demand for web services has been fuelled by the rise of Web 2.0 collaboration and interactive media.
Over the past few years some software suppliers have begun to adapt the principles outlined in Wikinomics and social networking sites, talking grandly about the "next generation enterprise".
The idea is that companies harness external expertise by engaging directly with and rewarding participation from their customers, users and a wide pool of informed contributors. This method is epitomised by the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, where entries are written and edited by users. The concept is also referred to as "crowdsourcing" rather than "outsourcing".
nGenera's product range, which is accessed over the internet as Software as a Service, includes software to help users test "what if" business scenarios and collaborate online to develop new business ideas. The software is aimed at large companies which pay a monthly licence fee. Customers include Royal Mail, Shell and British Telecom.
The software is used by managers, employees and customers. Using blogs and other nGenera software, staff are encouraged to participate in projects using wiki-type collaboration, while another nGenera application lets companies chat online with their customers. There is also software for handling salary, bonus and incentive compensation schemes.
Analysts believe Software as a Service web services such as those produced by nGenera have great potential. Web services tend to be quicker and cheaper to deploy than IT systems developed in-house and they do not require up-front investment as they can usually work using the existing IT infrastructure.
Analysts talk about how web services like the products from nGenera can transform the culture of a corporation. The technology can be used to build relationships between business users and their IT departments, or between the business and its customers or suppliers.
Roger Fulton, vice-president distinguished analyst at research company Gartner, says although some of nGenera's technology does not seem particularly innovative, it is being used in an innovative way. The software helps a business keep in closer touch with its main "stakeholders" - management, staff, recruits, customers, suppliers, investors - and gets them to suggest and help develop new IT services.
"Conventional new (IT) development processes start with research and focus groups that lead to solutions being developed, authorised and pushed by IT into the business," said Fulton. "In contrast, nGenera's focus is on creating continuously active communities of interest to demand useful services."
Fulton said that IT directors would also have to pay attention to how and where data is stored and how easy it would be to recover in the event of a crisis.
Web 2.0 concerns
Sceptics have argued that web services technology - and its free-wheeling approach to developing technology - sounds great. but could end up in a mess with security flaws and chaotic projects. Author Andrew Keen has dismissed much of Web 2.0, including Wikipedia, as the "cult of the amateur".
And amid the credit crunch and economic downturn, are companies really ready to start something resembling a permanent revolution in their IT and across their business?
Vuk Trifkovic, senior analyst at research company Datamonitor, said that there were compelling reasons for adopting the kind of web services technology favoured by nGenera.
"Organising enterprises along less formal lines and injecting the egalitarian spirit of collaborative operations or facilitating communications through blogs, wikis, forums, social networks, micro-blogs and other tools is a really good idea. Also, I would agree that the rules of marketing are being redefined and that one simply needs to adopt an mixed and open approach and old-style 'shouting' at your customers in hope they will be bludgeoned into buying what you have to offer does not work anymore."
But he added that the sweeping claims made in nGenera's marketing might scare off some customers. "My feeling is that they are probably too evangelical about their approach and that they may appear too aggressive with the innovative messaging. I have not seen the tools ... but on the face of it, similar features and tools are available in different configurations elsewhere."
nGenera has a big-name backer - Don Tapscott - and its web services-based technology has impressed analysts. It has also built up an impressive list of blue-chip companies in a short time. But amid fears of a recession in the UK - and inevitable pressure on IT directors to cut costs - nGenera's technology may well be too new and require too much of a cultural change for many companies.