Enterprise collaboration with blogs and wikis

Companies turn to new tools to foster dialog between employees, customers, and the public

This article has been modified from its original version. Certain quoted material has been removed because its veracity could not be confirmed.

Where do you find all the bits and pieces that comprise your business intelligence? Some of the more interesting snippets are probably trapped in thousands of e-mails languishing in cluttered inboxes or in archived instant messages that no one will ever bother to access again. And no doubt there’s a lot of useful information stuck in stagnant documents or databases, moldering away on the intranet.

To qualify as intelligence, information must be both used and renewed. Good synapses fire fast and standard groupware can be too structured and rigid to support real-time, off-the-cuff data collection for workgroups or projects. Easy and informal, e-mail and IM remain the knowledge-sharing tools of choice for many employees. But after a message has been sent and read, it often drops into the network netherworld never to be seen or used again.

To facilitate the exchange of information and to establish customized, user-friendly data archives, companies such as Cisco, Disney, Hewlett-Packard, General Motors, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Novell, and Yahoo are turning to a new breed of collaboration tools: blogs and wikis. Each helps fill the gaps left by traditional groupware in a different way.

“Blogs and wikis play opposite roles,” says Martin Wattenberg, a researcher on the collaborative user experience team at IBM Watson Research Center. “Blogs are based on an individual voice; a blog is sort of a personal broadcasting system. Wikis, because they give people the chance to edit each other’s words, are designed to blend many voices. Reading a blog is like listening to a diva sing, reading a wiki is like listening to a symphony.”

The good and bad of blogs

Robert Scoble started blogging four years ago when he worked for Japanese technology giant NEC. Scoble’s ruthlessly honest blog -- he never shied from criticizing NEC when he thought it was necessary -- soon became an online gathering place for NEC customers, a place where people could get tech support and offer product feedback.

Now a Microsoft technology evangelist, Scoble has continued to blog and often writes about the best and worst of Microsoft’s solutions. Although straight-talking employees can make some enterprises nervous, the credibility Scoble has developed throughout the years serves Microsoft well. If Scoble defends his company, even Microsoft-scorning geeks listen. Scoble is, however, careful to point out in his blog that his writings “are not vetted by Microsoft and are not official. Often they aren’t even correct.”

Similarly, Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz’s blog, launched last June, is becoming a trusted source of inside information. Schwartz occasionally attacks Sun’s decisions and business practices with almost as much vehemence as he slams HP, IBM, and other competitors.

“With enterprise blogs, the prevailing wisdom right now is to avoid marketing speak of the sort you’d find in a press release,” says Frank Gilbane, CEO of content management technology consultancy Bluebill Advisors. “The strength of blogs and wikis is that they provide direct interaction with readers. People don’t want to interact with press releases, and if they don’t feel the content is real, they’ll simply stop reading the blog.”

Blogs provide the double-edged sword of direct contact with employees who may have been previously walled off, protected by public-relations handlers. At Northern Voice, a recent Canadian blogging conference, keynote speakers Tim Bray of Sun Microsystems and Microsoft’s Scoble discussed how blogging allows them to speak directly with users, thereby giving them a clearer picture of what customers want. But putting John from engineering or Jane from programming in front of the public can potentially backfire. Will John and Jane be able to walk the fine line between frankness and saying just a bit too much?

“I believe that companies will soon start assigning specific people with good communication skills to public blogs intended for specific audiences, so you’ll have one person communicating with customers through a blog, another dialoguing with the press, another providing information for investors,” Bluebill’s Gilbane says. “And companies who haven’t already developed a clear policy on employee blogging will soon have to do so.”

On his own blog, Sun’s Bray lays out a logical corporate blogging policy for Sun employees. His suggestions read in part: “It’s perfectly OK to talk about your work and have a dialog with the community, but it’s not OK to publish the recipe for one of our secret sauces. … Talking about revenue, future product ship dates, road maps, or our share price is apt to get you, or the company, or both, into legal trouble. … Using your Weblog to trash or embarrass the company, our customers, or your co-workers is not only dangerous but stupid.”

Corporate blogs don’t have to be public. IBM has several outward-facing blogs for communicating with customers, but the company also has BlogCentral, an internal IBM pilot program that enables employees to keep personal blogs. As of March 2005, BlogCentral has nearly 8,000 registered users and almost 3,000 active Weblogs with a total of 20,000 posts made, according to Dan Gruen, researcher at IBM.

“Because BlogCentral is searchable and because you can easily see the latest postings across BlogCentral as a whole, it can help you discover colleagues throughout the company with interests similar to your own,” Gruen says. “We’ve seen people using blogs to diary their daily experiences using a new technology or building a new kind of system, monitored by others as a sort of real-time virtual apprenticeship, which lets them observe events as they unfold and see the issues that arise and how they are addressed.”

Wiki while you work

A blog is like a presentation. It’s a one-to-many form of communication: a single person speaking to an audience who can comment on, but not change, the content. By comparison, wikis are a many-to-many collaborative tool. Anyone with access can add to, change, or delete information contained in a wiki. Think of it as a huge whiteboard, one where everyone has a marker and is welcome to scribble.

IBM’s Gruen agrees that wikis are great tools both for providing information and gathering feedback. “Unlike blogs, wikis are designed for continual editing of a set of documents, making them very suitable for developing a knowledge base,” he says, adding that wikis “provide an easy-to-access method for groups or teams to collaboratively construct content, particularly in situations where it is important to aggregate input from multiple people.”

Wikis develop to suit the needs of their users. Unlike a blog, where users would just be pushing content, a wiki pulls out the best information from a wide pool of users.

 Collaboration or chaos?

The free-form nature of wikis -- and to a lesser extent blogs -- can be a benefit, but this lack of control over content causes some companies to wonder whether these tools might prove detrimental to business. Many struggle with the issue of how much autonomy to allow employees when they blog.

Sun Microsystems’ employee bloggers must agree to a strict company policy before they set up their corporate blogs. But there is no further vetting process for content; whatever employees write is posted without review.

Still, public-relations professionals worry that too-candid blogs may result in branding meltdowns. This fear results in some odd restrictions. For example, Microsoft bloggers generally refuse to respond directly to press requests asking for comment on their own blog posts, instead passing such requests along to Microsoft’s PR agency, Waggener Edstrom.

The smart business blogger accepts the fact that anything put in writing and transmitted over the Internet is about as private as a postcard. Recently, posts from Intel President Paul Otellini’s blog were made public. Otellini’s very open comments, intended to be viewed only by Intel employees, presented a candid view of the challenges Intel faces, including praise for competitor AMD.

But Otellini couldn’t have been surprised to see the contents of his blog leaked. As he wrote in his first post: “While this is intended as an internal blog, I recognize that it will become public -- welcome to the Internet! As a result, please recognize that I may be a bit limited in my comments and responses, to protect Intel.’’

Stressing user accountability and regular review of postings is critical when wikis are used to share important information, such as security data. Bluebill’s Gilbane believes that enterprise wikis will soon become more like blogs, with permission-based features that allow greater control over posted content.

“The more useful a wiki is to the enterprise, the more you need some sort of control over who can edit and add content,” Gilbane says. “You need to define the fine line between collaboration and a complete free-for-all or it can become a real mess. That said, we’ve had a difficult time finding a skeptic to include in our upcoming panel on enterprise use of wikis and blogs -- everyone we speak to is very enthusiastic about the benefits of this technology.”