“The architecture of participation is baked into the architecture of the software.”
Thanks to the hype generated by Business Week, The New York Times, Fortune, and Newsweek (among others), Web 2.0 has captured the imagination of consumers and businesses alike. But knowing how to leverage Web 2.0 concepts to fuel collaboration and innovation among employees, partners, and customers is another story. Web 2.0 can change an enterprise but recognizing how, and determining whether you should, do so is confusing. This article aims to dispel some of the myths surrounding Web 2.0 while discussing its practical applications within organizations. Then the enterprise—businesses and their practices—can embrace and extend Web 2.0 to Enterprise 2.0.
What is Web 2.0?
To paraphrase a definition by Tim O’Reilly, who was one of the first to use the term, “Web 2.0″ is web-based software which is continually collaboratively updated. This means that the software gets more useful the more people who consume and remix it. Remixing is a key concept of Web 2.0. In music, remixing means taking established songs and editing them together, potentially adding your own elements as well. With Web 2.0, individual users add their own data and services to collaborative web software, remixing the Web 2.0 sites into increasingly useful tools and creating an exponential growth effect.
For example, Digg publishes news stories from around the web. Users contribute their own news stories as well as noting other publications’ stories, and all users “digg” or rate them. The Diggers also add comments to the stories and rate the comments of others, too, determining the stories’ prominence on the site. The more users who contribute and rate stories and comments, the more effective the service gets.
Ruby on Rails is another groundbreaking technology. A combination of an elegant programming language and a framework for speeding development of web applications, Ruby on Rails is allowing dozens of tiny start-ups to create potential businesses overnight. Those web applications, from blogging tools to photo galleries to wikis, are turning site visitors into site participants. Ruby is an remarkably clear language, readable by designers as well as programmers, and Rails has many best practices built into the framework, so that these new applications are more accessible and usable than ever. Meanwhile RSS and APIs are freeing data from presentation on sites all over the web, making it easier than ever to get information the way you want it, or to remix it with other websites’ data into something new and exciting.
It’s a mistake to think Web 2.0 is all about the technology, but it’s also a mistake to dismiss the technology. The architecture of participation is baked into the architecture of the software. Web 2.0 lets you share and incorporate multiple voices— your customers, your service reps, your employees—who quickly take the product, service, or idea in a direction that you could not alone. Often the technology will let you behave no other way.
It seems most important aspect of Web 2.0 is the values it espouses. Web 2.0 purports to be collaborative, participatory, simple, accessible, efficient, lightweight, approachable, action-oriented, and user-driven. These values are found in companies like Google, Yahoo!, Netflix, Flickr, Technorati, Skype, and eBay. When you think about Web 2.0, first think about the values before you think about potential applications of the technology. The technology is nifty; the values are competitive.
What does it mean for the enterprise?
So far, other than the new technologies associated with Web 2.0, very little of the Web 2.0 advances have been brought to the internal workings of business. At first blush, it appears that the concepts don’t apply to the enterprise. The open, freewheeling discussion of a Digg seems inapproapriate for a corporation. But closer examination reveals some key opportunities.
First, Web 2.0 can change the way you reach your customers, build relationships with them, and further your brand objectives. Successful companies are using Web 2.0 concepts to encourage their customers to build communities around their products, provide feedback on products, and, in some cases, even inform strategy. But Web 2.0 concepts are not effective unless you examine how you are connecting with your customers and relinquish the idea you can dictate to them. It takes courage to let go of control, through collaborative design with the customer, or through communication within the enterprise. Rather than “aligning supply chains, communications, marketing initiatives” what if you co-create new supply chain approaches with your suppliers, or what if marketing initiatives come from the customers? While pronouncements and offerings feel safer and more familiar than participation and collaboration, the rewards are higher when you open your processes up to more input.
Take General Motors. They have been running promotions inviting customers to create advertisements for their Chevy Tahoe brand. The customers visit a website where they can choose a video clip, add sound, text, create sequences, and publish the result as a complete advertisement. Recently a number of anti-SUV customers used this platform to create ads about global warming, to protest the war on Iraq, and to demean the product. This has resulted in numerous new articles and remarkable traffic. While this violates most brand managers’ rules-of-thumb, General Motors is leaving all but the profane up on the site. This repositions them as unafraid and honest, and allows the traffic to continue unabated. PT Barnum said any publicity is good publicity; we’ll see if General Motors agrees.
Companies are also using Web 2.0 approaches to communicate more effectively with customers. The Sun Microsystems CEO, Jonathan Schwartz, publishes a popular blog in which he discusses his company’s strategies, products, opportunities, and challenges. Customers can then follow the company’s progress via a more intimate and digestible form than a press release which then becomes a format for open dialog between the company and the consumer. Normally corporations shy from allowing customers to express their opinions publicly, much less let the CEO engage in published discussion with them. Sun promotes loyalty and gains invaluable knowledge with this simple tool.
The collaborative value of Web 2.0
Consider how your enterprise works with its network of partners. Whether it is with suppliers, distribution partners, or service providers, there are opportunities for collaboration. Ask yourself how you develop your go-to-market strategy for new products. How are you involving your business partners? And more specifically, how are you involving the foot soldiers in your partner companies?
Luxury brands like Chanel and Estee Lauder work very closely with their retailer partners to make sure that their brands are accurately represented in the department stores. These luxury brands share their marketing strategies with the senior executives from their retail partners. Maybe it is time for them to share those plans with the employees at the retailer who will actually be tasked with selling the product? Most of this communication happens over the phone, through email, and with on-site visits. Web 2.0 technologies increase the reach and improve the richness of the interaction.
Imagine if the next time Estee Lauder was determining the look of its retail presence at a Macy’s or a Bloomingdales it used Web 2.0 technologies to ask saleswomen to evaluate or even remix counter display concepts. By asking the saleswomen to vote on counter display concepts via a dynamic Web 2.0 website, Estee Lauder would learn vital information. If it allowed saleswomen to rearrange, add to, and combine those display concepts, Estee Lauder might discover new ways to reach the consumer. In fact, if the communication on the Web 2.0 sites were allowed to live on post launch, Estee Lauder salespeople could continually refine the concepts based on store usage patterns, and could share the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t across stores almost instantly.
The audience within
What Web 2.0 values should be corporate values? The more collaborative the employees of a company are, the more successful the company becomes over time. Employees that collaborate efficiently by leveraging each other’s intellect and resources create stronger and more successful products. Unfortunately, it is also recognized that current communication and collaboration “solutions” are woefully inadequate. Most software touted to enable collaoration is difficult to use, cumbersome, limiting, and does not empower employees to share their content. Rather than fueling collaboration, they hinder it.
Why do these existing approaches fail? They fail because they’re driven by technology requirements rather than by human needs. Because the current crop of tools are built on values of control, containment, and secrecy in environments where employees are encouraged to compete more than collaborate with one another, installing another knowledge managment tool does little to remedy the problem. Until the enterprise is willing to examine its values and its behavior, poor choices in policy and in technology are inevitable.
Web 2.0-driven solutions for collaboration are different because the values are baked into the functionality. RSS feeds do not force employees to visit an intranet or website but can bring the information to them in the employee’s choice of format. By allowing anyone in a company to publish RSS feeds, and by letting employees choose which ones to subscribe to with the tools they want, the best feeds rise to the top, employees are better informed, and the employee authors get the recognition they deserve. In this manner, the company itself also learns what’s valuable, instead of telling employees its abstract ideas of what employees should value. Courageous companies could even learn what direction to take the corporate strategy by tapping into the “wisdom of crowds.”
Similarly, a company that uses a wiki-based solution for collaboration will have more success than a traditional, highly permission-driven intranet tool. Wikis allow anyone to edit anything, and require no special privileges or knowledge to contribute. They work the way a smart team does, permitting people to riff on each others ideas and expand on each other’s knowledge. Moreover, if wiki authors have a comprehensive profile describing their professional interests, listing their previous posts and their contact information, an atmosphere of trust and familiarity arises, and employees will be more likely to collaborate and share their personal knowledge.
In a nutshell, Web 2.0 concepts like wikis and integrated chat can make a big difference in acheiving Web 2.0 values. Companies that are more collaborative, participatory, efficient, user-driven, and action-oriented are recognized as the most successful. IBM, for example, has just launched “Innovation Jams” where thousands of IBM employees are encouraged to participate in virtual chatrooms simultaneously on a given day. IBM hopes to uncover transformative business ideas through these virtual discussions. As discussed in a recent Businesssweek article, IBM CEO J. Palmisano believes that the opinions of 100,000 IBM employees will result in “catalytic innovations” that can lead to new business for IBM.
But what can you do today?
It’s all well and good to discuss major shifts in corporate culture, but we all know those take time. What specifically can you do today to understand Web 2.0 better and to learn how to use it in your company to support employees, customers, and partners? Don’t task your information technology department to make every web-based application Web 2.0 ready, or push your product managers to start blogging 25 times a day. Instead, step back and learn more about this space, then think how the underlying concepts can help you improve in small ways. And the easiest way to do that is to look at a few examples currently on the web.
Revolutionizing the phone book
The first place to start is with a networking site like LinkedIn. Sign up and invite your peers to join as well. Create a profile of yourself. Play around with some of the linking features. Try searching for someone. And then ask yourself whether your company would benefit from an application like this for all employees and partners. Is it easier to use than your current intranet employee directory? Does it have some nifty features you wish you had on your intranet? By making the internal social networking more explicit, employees will discover connections with each other and further knowledge management between departments and offices.
Simplifying the spreadsheet
The second place to visit is the Google Spreadsheet application. At first glance, Google’s spreadsheet application may seem lacking in many respects. From a functionality perspective, it does pale in comparison to Microsoft Excel. However, after playing around with it for a while, you’ll discover that it includes the most-used functionality of Excel and offers something a bit different. Click on the “share this spreadsheet” link, and suddenly you’re collaborating in real time. This can be invaluable now that companies’ business units are seperated not just by buildings but by countries.
Web 2.0 applications are optimized for multi-users, easy to use, and mostly free. Now ask yourself, are there any applications in your work environment you wish were web-based with more collaborative features and better usability? Are there applications that have unnecessary gating features, locking out great minds? Are your most important documents living in people’s inboxes and on their hard drive? You may discover that you don’t need to upgrade to the next version of Microsoft Office again. A Web 2.0 application similar to Google’s spreadsheet application may meet your online collaboration needs.
A bottom-up knowledge management system
Once you’ve finished playing around with the Google spreadsheet application, make your way over to Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the largest living encyclopedia on the web. From the home page of Wikipedia, search for the word “collaboration.” You’ll be taken to a page filled with definitions, explanations, and references. You may even notice that the collaboration article has been written in collaboration with another wiki called MetaCollab.net. Now try it yourself: click on one of the edit links on the right-hand side. You can edit the page yourself in real time. Click on the History tab at the top of the page, and you can see who else has edited the page. Now leave your mark and see how fast it’s corrected.
Imagine if you had a wiki to share information and brainstorm with parts suppliers. Wouldn’t they feel far more invested in the success of programs that they had co-created? Imagine if your whole intranet was a wiki where anyone could create, edit, or even remove a page. You’d probably get a lot more content publishers and a lot more tacit knowledge online.
Afraid of vandalism? Because wikis have revision histories that contain who has done what to each page, responsibility for good and bad acts is transparent. An employee who might vandalize an intranet is one who might be doing worse privately. An employee who tirelessly caretakes the accuracy of the wiki is someone to appreciate, and work to retain.
Getting news that you want when you want it
Next, visit Technorati. You will discover that Technorati is the largest directory of blogs. Search for a word—maybe something like innovation—and in a matter of seconds, you’ll see which of 46 million blogs contains it. Go to one of those blogs and bookmark the RSS (really simple syndication) feed. If you use a browser such as Firefox, you’ll be able to view live news feeds from that website right in your bookmarks panel.
Alternatively, you could use a reader like Bloglines, which allows you to not only watch but share news feeds. You could also start publishing in RSS—sites like Feedburner make it easy. Think about how you could communicate with your employees or your partners using news feeds. All they would have to do is subscribe to a newsfeed, and they’d get news from you or your department as soon as you published it.
Training tapes in the car
Talking about staying on top of news, jump to Business Week, and scroll down to the bottom of the page. Choose a podcast—maybe the CEO’s Guide to Technology—and download it to your machine. Plug in your iPod and listen to the podcast on what Web 2.0 is. If you can learn about Web 2.0 via a podcast, there’s no reason why you can’t publish podcasts about products, communication strategies, training, and industry statistics for your employees. National Semiconductor recently issued iPods to all 8,000 of its employees for this purpose.
Group decision-making on steroids
The last website to visit on your Web 2.0 tour is Yahoo! Tech Buzz. Tech Buzz is a prediction market, taking advantage of the wisdom of the crowds concept. This means users can buy and sell a concept’s contract which is similar to buying a stock for a company. The value of the contract can be interpreted as a prediction for a future event. The people who think the idea is a good one invest in it driving the price up and vice versa. So go invest your fantasy dollars in trends you think are going to flourish. Use the prices of other trends to understand what the rest of the world thinks of those trends. It is like the stock market, but instead of trading shares of a company, you’re trading concepts.
Next time you need to make a decision between two advertising concepts, consider publishing them on an internal predication market on your intranet. Let your employees buy shares in each concept based on which one they think is strong. Before you know it, you will have learned which one is better. Hewlett-Packard pioneered applications in sales forecasting and now uses prediction markets in several business units.
Making sense of it all
There is no doubt Web 2.0 concepts are starting to have an impact in the workplace with blogs, wikis, and prediction markets cropping up everywhere. Just as the original spreadsheet changed business, Web 2.0 will find its place in the corridors of some of America’s largest companies. Already companies like Ernst & Young, Nokia, Kodak, Lucent Technologies, and IBM are testing different Web 2.0 concepts for their enterprises.
The technology is relatively simple to adopt, especially thanks to open source, service-oriented architectures, and advancements in XML and presentation layer technologies. Out of the box Web 2.0 wiki and blogging solutions geared for the enterprise, such as Social Text and Traction Software, also make the move easier. You can dabble with the tools first before committing to complete adoption of a Web 2.0 approach.
Web 2.0 (its technology and values) is here to stay. The web is not about publishing content and making it available to employees, partners, and customers. That was Web 1.0. This time it’s about letting those customers, partners, and employees take control of the online experience.
Allow it to happen. It may change your business forever.