Web 2.0: new tools, same challenges

Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networks can drive employee feedback, but they must be supported by management strategy

The media's coverage of the enterprise application of Web 2.0 has been very effective in raising expectations and generating hype. But organisations seeking business benefits should consider how Web 2.0 fits into the bigger picture by recognising other aspects of change required and the risks involved.

Delivered correctly, Web 2.0 technologies can be a driver of change in business behaviour, increasing business flexibility and responsiveness to the market. However, miracles cannot be expected from the technology in isolation.

Change has to be driven within the context of an organisational programme, transforming culture and behaviours. Tools such as social networks require cultural change in order to be widely adopted in the long term, as well as a real commitment to this change from the business. The new generation of workers has grown up with the internet and can provide a catalyst for this change.

Search for "enterprise Web 2.0" on the internet and a number of business benefits will be touted. Blogs are going to give every employee a voice. Wikis will provide common collaboration spaces for projects. Social networking will connect your employees in thriving communities, resulting in a revolution in the sharing of knowledge.

The resulting organisation will be far more agile and flexible, and will have dispensed with its traditional hierarchy and knowledge silos. All of this just from installing some software?

The reality is that no organisation can, or should, expect an overnight revolution. Projects that take business advantage of new technologies tend to succeed where business and process change are given sufficient thought and support, and generally fail where they are not.

The same applies with Web 2.0. Although there will be a number of evangelists in any organisation willing to embrace new tools, there will be a greater number who will not unless there is a compelling reason to do so. There are a number of examples of organisations that have implemented blogs and wikis - initially with good uptake - only to have the communities die out through a lack of ongoing support.

Placing Web 2.0 tools in the context of an organisation's strategy is therefore imperative, as support will be required from the highest level to make the required behavioural changes stick.

A clear, realistic vision for how these tools will support business goals needs to be developed, committed to and supported by a business case. The implementation of the tools should then be made in line with other enabling changes in business processes and behaviour.

For example, if your business objective is to remove barriers to innovation, some management change is required to implement ideas gathered through Web 2.0 tools. Otherwise, you have just implemented a highly flexible suggestions box.

Providing flexibility for individual expression and creativity through Web 2.0 tools is not without its risks. Effective moderation of these systems will be necessary, but this should not be too heavy-handed, as this will discourage adoption.

Having a strong management team, demonstrating success, communicating well and removing barriers to adoption are all keys to success, as they are on any technology-enabled business project.

Selecting the right pilot groups is also critical. It is important that a pilot is led by someone with the power to drive participation, and that the project is large enough for the outcome to demonstrate value.

The first generation to have grown up with the internet is now entering the workforce, and they bring with them new ways of thinking about collaboration and working online. These new workers are used to informal environments such as Facebook - a world away from traditional knowledge management systems and hierarchies.

This group can be used in Web 2.0 projects to demonstrate the value of new ways of working to more experienced employees who are likely to possess the business knowledge, driving further value and creating a cycle of improvement.

The new generation does not need encouragement to use Web 2.0 tools. In fact, they will expect such tools to be present already. The sure-fire way to ensure adoption of these tools in the enterprise is to do nothing and wait for workers to make use of external tools.

If there is commitment to change in the organisation, Web 2.0 offers powerful enabling tools, and the internet generation can offer the initial critical mass of users. But without cultural change, Web 2.0 in the enterprise will be used only by those who are already converted, missing out on a potential revolution in organisational behaviour.

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