Banking on Blogs

By Dan Gillmor  |  Posted 02-06-2006 Print Email
At investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, blogs and other edge applications have become a regular part of doing business.

J.P. Rangaswami is not your typical investment-bank chief information officer. That's undoubtedly one reason why, when you look under the information-flow covers, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein is not your typical investment bank.

DrKW, part of the Allianz Group financial-services conglomerate, is based in London and Frankfurt. It has more than 6,000 employees around the globe, and operates in one of the world's most highly regulated industries. Information is the heart blood of the operation, and Rangaswami has been busy redefining some old ideas into modern methods.

In particular, he's adopted a variety of conversational tools—weblogs, podcasts, instant messaging, wikis and the like—which he believes are fundamental to fostering better communication and collaboration within the bank. He's weighed the very real risks against the demonstrated benefits, and concluded that this is the best approach.

What's striking is how comprehensively Rangaswami has used these tools. While DrKW has an official external blog, the overwhelming majority of the company's edge-in collaboration is internal. Beginning with some internal blogging experiments in 2003, the operation has expanded to almost 400 internal blogs today, plus a massive wiki presence, sophisticated instant messaging, podcasting and even video-blogging. DrKW's IT people put the tools in place, explained how to use them, established some policies and then stepped back to see what would happen.

What makes this initiative worthwhile to investment bankers? Rangaswami notes that banking is all about "relationships, based on trust and transparency," and that social software, done properly, is ideal for this.

Quantifying the benefits is not simple, he says, though one of the bank's equity-derivative trading departments saw a 70 percent drop in internal e-mail traffic once its wiki hit full speed. But it's abundantly clear to Ranga-swami and his colleagues that tools which help a business to inexpensively and rapidly "absorb, react to and enrich information" are by definition valuable.

The adoption of these tools by people inside the organization effectively becomes the value proposition, he says, because they start collectively doing things they might not have imagined possible before deployment. And when employees, after learning how to use a tool, start "complaining about what it doesn't do," you know they have taken a kind of ownership of the process and will improve it.

"We couldn't do this by mandate," Rangaswami says. "We had to allow it to emerge."

Today the internal phone directory routinely includes links to blogs along with phone extensions and e-mail addresses. The most active blogs have more than 200 postings per year—and they have audiences. There were more than 2,000 "unique visitors" per month to the blogs in late 2005; in other words, "one-third of the bank staff reads the blogs," Rangaswami says. They comment, too: Every post elicits an average of 3.5 comments. There are also internal blogrolls, with people linking to each other's—and outsiders'—ideas and knowledge. It's growing organically.

"Everyone thought a blog was about the individual voice and passion, but it's also about corporate voice and passion," he says. "A corporation has a culture, and people are the asset. I wanted to find a way to bring that together."

One of those human assets, Sean Park, has been blogging internally since mid-2004, and externally since the end of last year. Park, whose title is Head of Digital Markets, sees blogging as a way of sharing ideas, collapsing hierarchies and promoting innovative, lateral thinking. So far, he notes, the most ardent internal users are those in IT or the digital-markets area, and one of his goals is to use blogs to "reach out and get the ideas of people in other areas."

Using technology from Socialtext, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based company that focuses on enterprise wikis, DrKW has created a single "workspace," the DrKWikipedia, where people can add their collected knowledge to living documents incrementally. And these documents, when taken as a whole, amount to the enterprise's internal reference materials. Imagine an internal Wikipedia—a virtual encyclopedia compiled by employees—and you get the idea. "It's much more useful than static Web pages," Rangaswami says. Meanwhile the old, static intranet sites are dying.

One of the great advantages of the wiki is its contribution to internal transparency: Even as users create new versions of documents, the software saves old ones. "The audit trail a wiki provides allows us, in a regulated environment, to be ahead of the curve," Rangaswami says.

Instant messaging, too, has become as much a collaboration tool as a simple way of talking. DrKW created 40 "channels" of data to which individuals can subscribe via a third-party product called Mind Align. Users effectively see a stream of timed and dated conversations, and can comment on particular issues.

The various systems are discrete in a sense, but the knowledge bleeds through the IT membranes. For example, a technology problem will lead to an alert that gets directed to the appropriate IM channel. "As we learn from it, we move into the blog space," Rangaswami says. "Then the learning gets deposited into the wiki."

If text predominates in DrKW's communications environment, there's also increasing room for richer media. The company used to have lots of quasi-town-hall meetings, Rangaswami says, where people had to gather in one place. DrKW invested in a small multimedia studio and uses it regularly. Podcasting and videocasting are offering more flexibility, particularly for the people listening.

As many companies have discovered, sometimes the hard way, corporate blogging is no different from other kinds of communications in the area of risk. A blog that leaks essential trade secrets can be just as damaging as an errant e-mail, and the issues are compounded in a highly regulated arena such as financial services.

"We can't wait for Eliot Spitzer to tell us that blogs are like e-mail," Rangaswami says, referring to New York State's attorney general, who has ardently pursued corporate wrongdoing in recent years. DrKW understood from the start that it needed a clear policy on the firm's edge communications. "But it had to be lightweight," Rangaswami says. It's just nine pages long, remarkably short given the nature of the company's business, and the policy is really more about general principles than hyper-detailed regulations—more along the lines of a human-resources manual than a compliance document. The principles are the ones you'd expect, such as: Don't break confidentiality. Respect copyright. Don't go over the financial Chinese walls. Don't lie. If it's an opinion, say so. And so on.

The most interesting section, is subtitled "Writing Style," which could be useful for any blogger. Advice includes:

"Don't pick fights. Brawls may earn traffic, but nobody wins in the end."

"Be the first to respond to your own mistakes. . . . If you choose to modify an earlier post, make it clear that you have done so."

"Speak in the first person. Use your own voice; bring your own personality to the forefront."

Using one's own voice may be the most essential advice of all. DrKW, by encouraging its people to be who they are via these online tools, is giving its employees, and the company itself, an advantage.

It's difficult to imagine any kind of organization that would not benefit from this kind of conversation. The highest immediate return—not necessarily the financial kind, but in terms of efficiency and cross-pollination of ideas—seems likely to come from internal use of these tools. If I were considering their deployment, I suspect I'd start inside the organization and expand outward.

Dan Gillmor is author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People and director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org). His next column will appear in April.



 

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