Web 2.0: beyond the buzz words

We unravel the Web 2.0 rhetoric to find how businesses can benefit from the changing face of the internet

Tim O’Reilly has a lot to answer for. When the publishing guru coined the term Web 2.0 at a 2004 conference he spawned a generation of marketing puff.

We have had Marketing 2.0, PR 2.0, Democracy 2.0, Identity 2.0, Jobs 2.0 and even Lunch 2.0. The numerical suffix has become shorthand for anything new and, more dubiously, groovy.

Product categories that get lumped under Web 2.0 include: social networking, wikis, social bookmarks, blogging and RSS newsfeeds. But as Tim Berners-Lee said during an IBM Developerworks podcast last year, no one really knows what it means.

O’Reilly’s initial conference slide was too arcane to present a cohesive view of the topic, and people have been floundering to describe it effectively ever since.

In mid-flounder, many people decided that the suffix was insufficient and reached for the “social” prefix, including Ruth Ward, head of knowledge systems and management at legal firm Allen & Overy. Ward worked with Headshift, a consultancy firm specialising in designing and deploying this class of software, to “2.0-ify” the company.

Allen & Overy piloted three 2.0 sites, focusing on general internal communications, sharing information across a particular business unit and a “knowledge project”, where several team members used a site to build their knowledge of law.

The pilots – since expanded to cover about a quarter of the firm using 40 different websites – used a mixture of wikis, blogs and newsfeeds to keep staff in touch with each other.

Advantages of Web 2.0 apps
“There is social tagging so that when people post new discussions on the blog they can select from the top-down categories and can also add their own themes or tags for bottom-up categorisation,” says Ward, adding that people can share bookmarks and web links.

But people could share bookmarks and web links and post messages using groupware 10 years ago, so what is the difference?

Lee Bryant, one of the founders of Headshift, says the network effect is the difference. Traditional applications, such as groupware, became slower the more people used them, he says. With Web 2.0 applications the reverse is true: the more people use them, the more effective they become.

“You influence each other, so that if you use a social tagging system, for example, themes start to emerge and other people pick up on them and you get these positive feedback loops. It is that difference that leads to the network effect.”

Strip away the market rhetoric around Web 2.0 and Bryant’s idea remains, along with the concept that Web 2.0 is not so much a host of new technologies as a mixed bag of old ones brought together by a confluence of forces.

These technologies are mostly just HTML and Javascript web pages designed to offer a more streamlined user experience, sitting atop a relational data layer used to feed back user-contributed data in new ways.

John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox and a Web 2.0 commentator, says it is not the technology behind Web 2.0 that is new.

“We suddenly have enough bandwidth, memory and computing power around these net-centric platforms,” he says. This means that the “people-to-people” concept that Web 1.0 wanted to accomplish can be supported, but with software interfaces that make it easier to contribute.

The case for Web 2.0 in enterprise
As a CIO, how do you make the case for Web 2.0 in the enterprise? According to George Goodall, research analyst at analyst firm Info-Tech Research, quantifiable cost-benefit analyses are under-developed.

“For example, cycle time and the cost to resolve a particular issue. But those are hypothetical business costs, because I have not seen many people doing the business analysis,” he says.

Ward points to the qualitative benefits. “There are tangible benefits that I can see from watching the site content. I can see someone saving time looking for something because someone else tells them who they should be speaking to. Without the site, that link would not have been made.”

The other difference between yesterday’s groupware and today’s Web 2.0 widgets is that the latter are cheaper (if not free), and often easier to deploy and use.

IT has traditionally been far from agile, says Seely Brown. You want a customer relationship management system? Hand over £200,000 and come back in six months. “But now, maybe large corporations want a way to tinker around the edge and have IT support tools that are basically mashups that get shaped in situ for the job at hand,” he says.

Web 2.0 as a single suite
But while small, agile, project-based developments sound good, results suggest that development may be more top-down than commentators realise. Allen & Overy spent £30,000 (£10,000 per site) on its initial pilots in an approach that was clearly strategic.

This approach reflects research from analyst firm Forrester, which found that 74% of CIOs would be more predisposed to Web 2.0 technologies if they were offered as part of a single suite. And 71% would prefer it if that suite came from a large supplier.

Microsoft, IBM and associated companies oblige, with modules for big-ticket products like Sharepoint and Domino. Intel, meanwhile, has stitched its hegemonic world and the grassroots world of Web 2.0 together.

Its venture arm, Intel Capital, has invested in Suite 2.0, a selection of tools from smaller software suppliers such as Socialtext and NewsGator. It commissioned open source software integration firm SpikeSource to integrate that code.

Rob Rueckert, senior investment manager at Intel Capital, supports Forrester’s findings. “The majority of the interest for Suite 2.0 has come from Fortune 500 global companies that have said ‘we are using these things internally – we now want to rope it all together and have a single corporate solution’. They are the ones that have already done their early pilots.”

But most companies are not there yet. Much line-of-business tinkering lies ahead before Web 2.0 will reach the CIO’s radar. So how can business departments with little or no IT budget embrace the social Web?

Seely Brown’s project-by-project approach is well-advised. “Start by putting together a decent collection of RSS feeds relevant to your project,” says Bryant.

Then, enabling the posting and sharing of bookmarks will help glean knowledge from the project team. Complementing this with blogs will enable people to spend more time on those elements from the bookmarks and feeds that are particularly relevant and need further articulation.

Understand how it works
Understanding the difference between consuming newsfeeds and consuming e-mail demonstrates a wider cultural shift that needs to take place in Web 2.0-savvy organisations. Generally, e-mails demand focused attention. They are processed in sequence and each takes a couple of minutes (or more) from your day.

Handling newsfeeds and blog posts in that way would make you unproductive, says Bryant. They require a “river of news” approach, in which workers skim large amounts of information for helpful nuggets. Social tagging helps to naturally elevate certain topics above others by making them more popular.

Finally, a wiki will help escalate blog discussion to more collaborative working, as needed. This has certainly been Ward’s experience: “The way the sites tend to work is that the blog is where people have a dialogue, but if it moves into more detailed work, it moves into the wiki,” she says.

If more firms are tackling Web 2.0 in the enterprise using limited, small budget pilots, then it could be one reason why few, if any, analysts have arrived at a maturity model for the concept. The more sophisticated activities linked to 2.0 will not be on many firms’ radars for a long time yet.

Opportunities with service orientated architecture
Nevertheless, Seely Brown identifies at least one area where companies can marry sophisticated developments in other areas of IT with Web 2.0 tools. It is another area using concepts and technologies stretching back to the early 1990s, rebranded by the marketers: service-oriented architecture.

“If you have SOA in there, then Web 2.0 might be an overlay that augments the experience around those services. As you drive Web 2.0 deeper inside the organisation, now think about how you might build social software around, say, the supply chain management system,” says Seely Brown.

One example could be application mashups where data from different sources – provided via web service interfaces – is united in a single application interface. Think Google Maps with your CRM data hovering on a map of customer locations, along with newsfeeds about the customer’s company and coloured flags indicating account status.

The Web 2.0 security challenges
IT departments face at least one big challenge with Web 2.0: security. Not only does the flow of information between different parts of the company (and perhaps between employees and customers) need to be managed, but the technical security must not be forgotten.

Paul Ritchie, security consultant at network security firm SecureTest highlights the dangers. Embedding too much client-side logic without following best practices, such as verifying user entries at the server, could lead to significant security flaws, he says.

Even well-respected server-side blogging software has shipped with malicious code inserted by a third-party, which would have allowed remote code execution on the server. Faced with these concerns, it is easy to see why CIOs want more control over Web 2.0 activities.

This tension between control and freedom plays out every time a consumer-focused technology makes it into the enterprise, but it is particularly pronounced here. Web 2.0 is supposed to be about the power of the people, the wisdom of crowds.

When IT tries to govern that it will find itself walking a thin line. Managers who give business departments too much latitude risk inappropriate blog posts, an overly complex collection of piecemeal products and escalating support and maintenance budgets.

Conversely, heavy-handed CIOs may discourage employee buy-in, which is what the whole concept is about. That dilemma is the same one that people faced with groupware in the early 1990s. Like the technologies underpinning Web 2.0, it is far from new.

Listen to Cliff Saran speak to Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics - How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, on the economics of Web 2.0 >>

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Allen & Overy >>

Headshift consultancy >>

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