The Internet may be entering a new phase that will decentralize control inside companies, enable employees to collaborate more easily, and drive efficiency. But corporations that want to use the web strategically to build corporate value will not just need to make radical cultural changes, they may also need to master a new vocabulary with terms such as Wikis (software that allows anyone to update and edit web pages instantly and democratically); Weblogs (online journals more commonly known as blogs); and RSS (really simple syndication) feeds, which distribute content from the Internet.
Arcane as these terms may sound to anyone but the initiated, the technology behind them is hardly fancy. Wikis, blogs and RSS feeds are relatively simple tools that will have a huge impact on the way people—and companies—communicate and do business. So how is the Internet changing? How can companies seek to understand the technological effects of these changes? And what cultural adaptations should companies make to capture value from these new tools?
Kevin Werbach, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, discussed such questions with three experts who will be speaking at the Supernova 2005 conference later this month in San Francisco. Philip Evans is a senior vice president at Boston Consulting Group, known for his work on information technology and business strategy; he is the co-author of the book, Blown to Bits. Janice Fraser is CEO of Adaptive Path, a user experience consulting firm. Her essay, “It’s a Whole New Internet,” will be the basis of a workshop at Supernova 2005. Ross Mayfield is CEO of Socialtext, a startup provider of lightweight business collaboration software based Wikis. (Disclosure: Werbach serves on Socialtext’s advisory board.)
Werbach: Let me start with you, Janice. You recently posted an essay that got a great deal of attention called, “It’s a Whole New Internet.” I’m curious what you think is potentially new about the Internet today and what that might mean for business?
Fraser: Two things are new about the Internet today. I’m going to separate technology from human beings. Some new technologies are coming out now that make different kinds of interactivity possible with online applications. But what is really new is what people are doing with existing technology.
I have seen lots of excitement in the last six months about what’s possible. There have been, for example, applications such as Google Maps that have allowed people to envision new ways of working—but when I say it’s a whole new Internet I mean there’s new vigor. And that’s going to lead to more creative thinking.
When you look at the trends in web development, you will see a shift from what I call host-provided value—such as CitySearch (where publishers provide local events listings in different cities)—to user-provided value in websites such as Upcoming.org (a global events calendar managed by users). There is a giving up of control. The new web applications are lightweight, single function and focused on a specific problem or interaction. When you combine that trend with creative developers who are beginning to have the energy and insight to recombine technologies in new ways, you get not the explosive growth of the 1990s, but you get something more relevant. I can’t anticipate exactly what that will be, but I see the potential for businesses to change the way they think about developing and deploying technologies.
When you combine applications like blogs, Wikis and RSS feeds and put a front end on them, that’s a different vision for the Internet and knowledge-sharing and management. One of my favorite examples is: What happens when you allow IT managers, who are looking to buy enterprise software, to create their own tags for the product documentation on Oracle.com? What has to change in business when you let users take control of their own experience? When I introduce that to experienced designers, their response is that this would never happen because it requires a cultural change inside Oracle. But that’s the point.
Werbach: Just to make sure people understand, your firm does user experience and information architecture work for various companies. Tags are user-generated classifications of data where the users label something as opposed to a more centralized approach. Correct?
Fraser: That is correct.
Werbach: Let me ask Philip and Ross. Do you see the same kind of enthusiasm?
Evans: I agree strongly with the picture Janice is presenting. It’s interesting because if you go back to the thinking of the earliest visionaries with respect to the Internet, that was exactly the picture they were painting. But then we went through a period when people believed that the gravity-defying dot-com was going to inherit this technology and redefine institutions—and that phase came and went rather fast. In the years that followed, the Internet was perceived as just an extension of business as usual. A lot of activity on the Internet moved to a point where corporations saw it as simply another distribution channel, advertising channel or platform where consumers could fill out forms or whatever.
Now we are seeing companies choose to work in ways that’s much closer to the original vision of the Internet being a medium that is genuinely peer-to-peer, is loosely coupled and sparks different kinds of interactions. The great step forward is not the technology itself—the blogs, etc. are wonderful, but technologically minor—but rather one of new perceptions or how people see fresh possibilities and may be willing to invest in them in new ways. We have come full circle.
Mayfield: When we co-founded Socialtext at the first Supernova conference, there was this amazing panel on collaboration describing highly structured workflow-oriented ways of collaboration for the sake of compliance. Back then, we saw the opportunity to create tools that could serve as centralized resources with more decentralized authority. That kind of framework changes a couple of things. How do you approach it as a tool designer? For one thing, you are creating tools to hand over control to users to create their own environments better adapted to their own situation. The other part of it is that as others have said, it’s not so much about the technology, but more about the practice and how it is used in a way that’s actually changing people’s minds and the way they are working.
We see wonderful rich cultures in communities such as Wikipedia (a free encyclopedia that any user can edit) that are doing things that people thought wouldn’t work if you stepped back and tried to design it. But somehow these things—messy as they are—happen to work in ways that shouldn’t work. You’re encouraging collaboration on a large scale, you’re giving users control over a resource, and by sharing that control you actually foster trust between the participants and the community.
Werbach: If it’s not technological breakthroughs, what has changed that has enabled us to finally get back to where the Internet was going to begin with?
Mayfield: I can explain that a little bit. We spent a lot of time developing physical infrastructure, and now we have to develop the social infrastructure on top of it. The earliest adopters of the