Where is Business 2.0? Part 2: Internal applications

The second part of this Web 2.0 feature focuses on internal corporate uses, what's to be afraid of by adopting such applications, and whether or not any of it actually matters.

PREVIOUSLY: External applications

You'll recall from the last instalment that Web 2.0 can be utilised by companies both internally and externally, with external uses usually revolving around marketing.

Internal usage of Web 2.0 is typically intended for collaboration or information sharing within the company. Often this takes the form of an editable web page - known as a 'wiki' - allowing companies to create repositories of information. This embodies the concept of 'collective intelligence', which is the idea that minds working in unison produce more than minds working apart.

The content of internal communication is obviously well guarded by companies, so few are broadcasting specific details about their own systems. But it's not impossible to get an idea of what's going on. Scott Farquhar is the co-CEO of Atlassian, a Sydney-based Web 2.0 development house which provides businesses with various collective intelligence tools. One of these is Confluence, a wiki program designed specifically for the needs of enterprises.

Farquhar reckons that more than 500 of their 7000+ customers worldwide are from Australia. Their wiki program Confluence boasts some big name users, including Telstra, Bluescope Steel and QBE Insurance, on top of various government agencies including Centrelink and the NSW RTA.

Shopping centre chain Westfield, for one, is employing tools to harness collective intelligence. Digital business programs manager Kate Carruthers says that in addition to their business-to-consumer Web 2.0 interface, they also have an internal system set up to aid collaboration.

"The Digital Business team regularly uses wikis, social networking tools and IM to facilitate collaboration and information sharing between team members. This includes our local team in Australia, colleagues in the US and external partners in both Australia and overseas."

The team is based in Sydney and supports websites in Australia, New Zealand, the US and UK. "With all these different time zones," says Carruthers, "it would be very difficult to manage without these collaboration tools."

The Australian branch of Cisco is another company using such collaborative tools. Consulting systems architect Adam Radford explains that to cope with the explosion of production and distribution of information, Cisco has implemented a system of thousands of wikis and internal blogs. Like Westfield, this is in addition to their external customer interface, which allows users to express their experience with Cisco publicly.

Radford believes that Cisco is not alone in its stance towards Web 2.0. He thinks that most Australian companies are "alert, not alarmed", meaning that many realise the potential benefits of Web 2.0 in general, but have yet to act on these realisations.

Symantec's Pacific vice president David Sykes believes Australian businesses will eventually investigate and engage with Web 2.0. He says that Australians are very advanced users of technology, and "when it's clearer we will find ways to use it".

But still, there are those who are slow on the uptake, and they might want to watch out; pundits are warning that failure to embrace these principles of collective intelligence now will result in being left behind later on.

Radford, one such soothsayer, says, "Companies are running out of time. Collaboration is critical for productivity improvements."

There are sceptics, however, regarding both internal and external applications of this supposed next-generation web. Kevin McIsaac of IBRS, for example, advises caution regarding 'paradigm hype'.

"CIOs have bigger things to worry about," he says. "It won't change the face of IT as we know it."

He declares that Web 2.0 is "just another evolution, not a revolution", and believes it should be considered accordingly: as a possible option, just like any other technology.

He's certainly not the only sceptic. Senior analyst David Cannon, IDC, says that there is just not enough of a potential impact on business for most companies to bother researching it, especially given that they've been burned by similar trends in the past.

"There's no dent on the bottom line."

Cannon also believes that Australians as consumers typically don't look to the internet when considering a purchase, so businesses are not inclined to bother with such involved web marketing.

Sykes, while positive that companies will eventually dive into Web 2.0, agrees that part of companies' reluctance is because it's hard to pin down an exact return on investment.

In addition to these fears, there's a gamut of other obstacles for companies to overcome, including matters both technical and legal. The technical obstacles are your standard fare: storage (all the masses of data need to be held somewhere); networking (there must be sufficiently large amounts of bandwidth for it); and, as Sykes explains, security.

Sykes believes that the massive number of web services on which Web 2.0 applications rely gives hackers an easy target. "It's like shooting fish in a barrel," he says.

But the law is what really holds some unexpected trickery for early experimenters. The Daily Telegraph became all too aware of this when it was forced to fork out a total of $480,000 to plaintiffs in a recent case involving user-generated content.

The online version of the paper invites readers to post comments on articles, and in this particular case - a story about a paedophile's legal referees - the comments were so bad that the recipients of the hate were motivated to sue.

While the bulk of the suit was based on defamation allegedly implicit in the article itself, the case does highlight the legal ambiguity of publishing user content: is a website culpable for what its readers post? You might think not, but since the comments appear under the paper's masthead, they could be seen as endorsed by the paper.

Web 2.0 therefore presents Australian businesses with a dilemma. They can jump on board early and make themselves vulnerable to the ambiguities of the legal system and the potential technical problems involved, or wait for someone else to go through the early adoption dramas and risk incensing their customers or missing out on potential opportunities.

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