Make Web 2.0 deliver business benefits

It is still early days for the real-world adoption of Web 2.0 technologies and applications to help businesses drive revenues, improve productivity, get closer to customers and reduce costs.

It is still early days for the real-world adoption of Web 2.0 technologies and applications to help businesses drive revenues, improve productivity, get closer to customers and reduce costs.

Web 2.0 is already producing leaders - Facebook, YouTube, MySpace and Google - but for many organisations, coping with its implications remains a challenge because for the most part, Web 2.0 has been flying underneath the corporate radar.

In an example of Web 2.0 technology reaping real-world benefits, a major airline's flight crew has chosen to use Facebook to manage their schedules, as did management consultancy Capgemini for the co-ordination of a new starters' "onboarding" programme.

By November of 2007, Facebook had acquired 50 million subscribers, with many organisational personnel already signed up, including 17,000 employees from Microsoft, 20,000 from IBM, and 13,000 from Accenture.

Open APIs

One of the key tactics in the battle between Facebook, MySpace and Google has been the opening up their application program interfaces (APIs) so that anyone can develop for them. The opportunity to capitalise on a fast-growing user base is tempting companies that have been looking for ways to get involved with social networking but are not keen on developing their own networks.

Social networking - which sits alongside blogs, wikis, mashups and RSS as the key tools that define Web 2.0 - can make such an impact, says Gartner, that, "the failure to consider the impact of social enhancement technology on the performance of the enterprise is a big mistake."

So it is no longer enough for IT directors to dismiss Web 2.0 as simply the next round of web-development technologies, although some still do. According to Forrester Research in its paper Web 2.0: Social Computing Dresses Up for Business, one CIO has admitted that he was too close to retirement to grapple with all the issues that Web 2.0 tools present, and that his successor could tackle Web 2.0 policies and usage instead.

Risks of Web 2.0

Some will inevitably point to the risks to the organisation that Web 2.0 tools pose through unsanctioned employee usage. Security, policy compliance, information reliability and licensing are key issues, but solutions are arriving.

Enterprise software provider Worklight has recently unveiled an enterprise-secure overlay for Facebook called Workbook, which allows employees to interact with their peers using Facebook, but puts it in a controlled corporate environment.

Meanwhile, the Federation Against Software Theft's Corporate Services arm is monitoring the wider implications of Web 2.0's convergence with software as a service and service oriented architecture, says Phil Heap, managing consultant within the Federation Against Software Theft.

The risks involved in embracing Web 2.0 are outweighed by the benefits experts say, and CIOs are already adopting Web 2.0 thinking to deliver a new approach to information creation, publishing, aggregation, discovery and validation.

Andy Mulholland, global chief technology officer at Capgemini, sees blogs and wikis as a solution to the curse that e-mail has become. "When we start talking about problems, we have to find people and content that could help through a community. Blogs have become like lighthouses. If the world is flat, then blogs and wikis are the hills by which you can see everyone."

Mulholland suggests that each Web 2.0 technology offers a different means of supporting differing requirements. Blogs provide a platform for individual contributions before a knowledge community has formed and help to create new areas of interest when the community gets established. Wikis assist collaboration and develop thinking using social tagging for the storage and retrieval of content as it is being built. Eventually, a Wikipedia-like format should evolve and may become a fixed version that can then be categorised as conventional enterprise knowledge management.

Paul Dawson, head of interactive media at user centred design specialist Conchango, says 2008 will be a key year for IT departments in addressing Web 2.0 issues.

"15% of IT managers' budgets for development projects this year should be attributed to user initiatives. If not, a company is going to struggle. Why? Because good user experience means people come back, and if they like what they see, they will tell their friends. Products, price and delivery are becoming less of a differentiator experience and usability are becoming increasingly important."

Enterprise 2.0

The Web 2.0 world has already yielded a number of secrets that should be applied within the enterprise. One idea is that "Enterprise 2.0" must emerge bottom-up from the needs and activities of its users, rather than being driven top-down by developers.

A visual example of this cited by Web 2.0 experts is the development of pedestrian paths within a university campus. Originally, no pathways were built between buildings, and the entire complex was planted with grass. After several months, the common pathways had "emerged" and were subsequently paved. A parallel concept can be applied to the development of new applications for the enterprise.

Graham Donoghue, head of new media at travel group TUI, says the approach he has learned from Google is to encourage his development team to find applications that are likely to be a success.

"Google splits its development staff's time in between 10%, 20% and 70% projects. The 10% is for researching things that are new, or an application that may be useful thinking ahead. Twenty per cent of their time is spent on adjacent businesses related to the core businesses in some way, such as Google News or Google Earth. Then, the remaining 70% is devoted to Google's core search business.

"There is lots of really good open-source code out there but you have to find it and exploit it. Does it exist? Can I copy it? Steal it? Buy it off the shelf? Some of these things are functionally very rich, but they can be difficult to use."

In those cases, says Donoghue, it makes more sense to find a leading Web 2.0 company to partner with rather than trying to build a social network yourself.

"We work together with the travel and lifestyle community WAYN.com rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. And we integrate all that Facebook, YouTube, and Google material in what we do," Donoghue says.

Peter Ward, WAYN's co-founder, says a number of enterprises make the mistake of trying to copy a social network or a Web 2.0 application instead of using the expertise already out there.

"Creating a network is the thing that is really different. But should you try to create your own network, or partner with an existing one. We can provide access to an API through XML to take search data from any site and populate that in any way this wish," Ward says.

Wayne Helmore, chief executive of Inner Circle Listing, says using social media can bring you a "torrent" of traffic.

"The key is familiarising yourself with the websites you are working with and then catering your message to them. That means the "tone" you adopt at YouTube may be very different to what you say at Squidoo. Always keep your audience in mind. Remember that Social Media is about being social. No one goes to YouTube to hear a sales pitch."

How to deal with Web 2.0

The Corporate IT Forum offers this advice for IT managers approaching Web 2.0 and social networking within the enterprise.

- Assess cultural fit: Companies communicating with customers or staff through social networks or blogs must first understand how social networking will fit their organisation's corporate culture. Tightly controlled, top-down organisations may struggle with the open and unmediated nature of collaborative media.

- Personalise it: Blogs and social networking tools can enable often faceless corporations to develop or initiate new, strong relationships with customers, creating greater brand loyalty. However, communication must be personalised and not written in dry corporate-speak that nobody will read. Developing a "voice" for your communication is important in building and maintaining trust.

- Take the rough with the smooth: Facebook and Twitter allow customers and staff to offer honest opinions about a company's products or services. But interacting through social networks means companies must expect negative comments will be made. Accept them and be ready to learn.

- Avoid "astroturfing": Do not establish blogs or social networking sites for any "inauthentic" marketing. Organisations that develop blogs using fake personas, or which are ghosted by professional blog copywriters run many risks. Getting caught writing a fake corporate blog goes beyond embarrassing the CEO: it damages consumer trust and brand reputation.

- Understand the threats: When staff join professional social networking groups, information about who employs them and what their job function is becomes available to anyone on the network. This leaves users vulnerable to criminals seeking company information. Training can help raise awareness of this threat. Remember that employees' social networking communications can be traced back to a company IP address leaving the organisation liable for the messages and material posted. This is especially relevant if a company has set up its own social networking site.

Web 2.0 Application Development Tools and Technologies

Research group Forrester says that managers within organisations must adopt new application-development methodologies and techniques to be able to assemble Web 2.0 applications. The frameworks, tools and technologies needed to create dynamic applications include:

- Rich Internet Application (RIA) frameworks such as eBay's San Dimas Client. New RIA platforms from Adobe, Google, Microsoft and YouTube are pushing Web 2.0 interfaces beyond the browser.

- Dynamic scripting languages such as Ruby on Rails are being used in the assembly layer of Web 2.0 applications. Ruby on Rails is popular because it allows web applications to be developed more quickly than with Java or C#.

- Agile development processes must be adopted to create a state of "perpetual beta" in which services are upgraded at a sufficient rate of delivery to keep developers ahead of the competition.

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