Blogs bubble into business

Jacob Crossman, a software engineer at Soar Technology Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich., uses blogging tools from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Socialtext Inc. to keep an up-to-date engineering notebook on his ideas about a particular project that can be accessed by other project participants.

“One of the disadvantages of a paper-based engineering notebook is that it’s hard to find things unless you want to go through it manually,” Crossman says. “So I decided to use the blog feature of Socialtext’s software to keep track of my ideas. I would type them in, and then they’re immediately searchable using another feature of the software.” He is also able to link to other documents about the project using the blog entry.

Crossman is not alone. Recently, weblogs, or blogs, which let anyone with a Web browser and some easy-to-use software publish a personalized diary online, have started to emerge as valuable knowledge management and communication tools in companies.

But blogs aren’t entering through the CIO’s office. They often first appear in companies as the convenient records of engineering or design projects. They’re taking the same bottom-up adoption path followed by instant messaging, another collaboration tool originally used for personal communication.

Weblog software, whether free, inexpensive or not so cheap, aggregates and publishes unstructured content on the Web by time and topic. XML can be used to embed links in the blog from a variety of resources, but no knowledge of that language or HTML is necessary.

The details and features of the technology vary by vendor, but blogging software is basically a simple content management system that’s designed to take content written by the blogger and post it at the top of a page.

That content is either stored in a database or a flat file, depending on the software. Usually the presentation layer is separate from the content, so that the blogger can design the look and feel of the blog and simply fit the content elements within whatever format the user wants to read. Many blogging systems provide templates to make that easier.

Using blogs, companies can easily and quickly communicate information such as project updates, research, and product and industry news both inside and outside the business. Security issues are the same as with any Internet-based application.

Even though blogging technology has the potential to become important to their companies, most CIOs haven’t paid much attention to blogging, and it’s not one of the tools they’re considering to solve their myriad IT problems, according to John Patrick, president of Attitude LLC in Ridgefield, Conn., and former vice-president of Internet technology at IBM Corp.

“I believe it is important to the CIO and the enterprise, because blogging introduces a new way to create, share and leverage knowledge in the enterprise,” Patrick says.

But Jamie Lewis, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah, says he isn’t sure all companies should immediately jump on the blogging bandwagon. “Whether companies should look into using it depends on corporate culture and the kind of culture they’re trying to develop,” Lewis says.

Blogging is like a lot of other collaborative tools — if the company is good about trying to encourage and generate cross-functional and interpersonal collaboration and communication, then it’s a good idea, Lewis says.

Internally, some corporations are using Web tools like Six Apart Ltd.’s Movable Type to create project management blogs, says Anil Dash, vice-president of business development at Six Apart, a weblog software vendor in San Mateo, Calif.

“You can do things like start one weblog for each project and have it run its course,” Dash says. “As the project continues along, everybody can do status updates and be able to link to every other relevant resource, whether it’s on the Web or in a Word document or in a proprietary company database. So for internal use, you have a lot of flexibility, and it respects the firewalls and the other boundaries you’ve already put in place.”

Michael Masnick, president of Techdirt Inc. in Foster City, Calif., says that while most corporations have knowledge management tools and corporate portals to organize internal data, they don’t have an effective way to deal with external information. A blog allows users to integrate internal and external information.

Enterprise blogs provide companies with easy-to-use tools to manage external information, which is extremely critical because it affects relationships with customers, partners and investors, as well as internal decision-makers.

“Having an enterprise blog provides a strategic advantage over the competition and helps companies gain market share and respond faster to their rapidly changing business environments,” Masnick says.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Naval Undersea Warfare Center (NUWC) in Newport, R.I., is using TeamPage enterprise blogging software from Providence, R.I.-based Traction Software Inc. to create a secure communications hub for a project to evaluate night-vision technology.

The blog is part of a pilot project to speed up communications within the DOD’s test and evaluation programs. NUWC will use it to ensure that information about its testing of the night-vision technology will be available in real time to its partners, including Ford Motor Co. and the U.S. Army’s night-vision lab, according to Tammi McVay, program analyst project lead at NUWC.

“[Some of our partners] will test this night-vision technology under various circumstances and log their test results and any observations that they have on our weblog, and all our other partners will have immediate access to it,” McVay says. “We’re working with all unclassified data for this go-round, but we’d need to look at this further to see how it would work in the world of classified information.”

After the four-month pilot is over, the DOD will analyze NUWC’s results and determine whether blogging has a future in the agency, says McVay.

Traction president Greg Lloyd says enterprises can use weblogs in a number of ways.

“We focus on groups within the company where communication either within the company or with channel parties or customers, or both, is part of their main business activity,” he says. “What the weblog provides is a very simple way to collect, organize and disseminate information that works and acts like a Web newspaper.”

Weblogs give people a self-service way to find out what’s happening within the company, Lloyd says.

“With our software, you can add comments or questions on any paragraph you see,” he says. “So if someone in the sales organization sees something that a competitor has just announced, that salesperson can add a note under the paragraph that talks about the new product announcement and make it visible to members in the sales team or only visible to the people in the competitive intelligence group, who would then correlate it and send it throughout the organization.”

Many corporations aren’t aware of the substantial business potential of enterprise blogs, says Toronto-based author Jim Carroll, who has written about business weblogs.

“If I’m a customer and I’m dealing with a product that has some type of well-known problem, to be able to access a blog and track that blog and to be able to track historic postings on that blog — I think that would be useful,” Carroll says. “The example I use is Harley-Davidson building a blog for its customers to keep up to date on all the cool stuff that’s happening with Harley, because people are religious about their Harleys. But I don’t think the marketing world has figured it out yet.”

One of the reasons the upper management at most corporations hasn’t really warmed up to the enterprise blog as a marketing tool is the end of the ’90s high-tech boom, Carroll says.

“I think people got excited about the Net. They got excited about it as a marketing tool and a customer-support tool — as a tool by which they could innovate their business processes. And then everything went wrong, and everyone out there is too darned terrified to try anything new right now,” he says.

But at lower levels of business, the convenience and usefulness of blogs is more powerful for users than techno-skittishness.

“The trend that’s happening now is that users are seeing the need for blogging like they have with other disruptive technologies, and they’re bringing them into the enterprise at the workgroup or departmental level,” says Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext.

Mayfield says the adoption scenario begins when a single worker sets up a work space for his workgroup. The group then goes on to build a business case for how blogging is adding value just on that small scale.

“Then that person creates a work space with somebody who’s in a different workgroup, and gradually what ends up happening is you gain this critical mass of building business case after business case within an organization,” he says. “And by the time the CIO is really looking at the technology to make a top-down buying decision for the enterprise, they already have an existing class of business cases and proven techniques of how users are adopting it.”

Mayfield says because these blogging tools are inexpensive — approximately US$30 per user per month — easy to use and accessible, there’s the potential for growth within the enterprise similar to the growth of instant messaging.

“I would expect it to be the same way, where users are just going to have it first, and then managers are going to realize increasingly the value of it as a management tool,” Mayfield says.

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