Rise of the Blog

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 04-05-2005

Rise of the Blog

Suddenly, Weblogs are Everywhere.

Millions of the easy-to-publish online journals have been created in the past three years, and their impact has been rapid and widespread. Bloggers helped drive Dan Rather from the anchor desk at CBS, and they played a prominent role in the 2004 elections. Corporate culture is no exception to this trend, but much of the action is taking place beneath the radar of IT managers.

So far, most of the attention paid to business blogging has focused on a handful of high-profile sites intended for public consumption. Robert Scoble, a Microsoft Corp. marketer, uses a conversational style in hopes of humanizing his company's image, and he's garnered a book deal for his efforts. Bob Lutz, vice chairman at General Motors Co., writes his weblog in the voice of a particularly well-positioned car enthusiast, rather than as a corporate suit, when he disputes a negative review of a Chevrolet product or headlines a post about a new Cadillac. These outward-facing journals represent a critical application of weblogs in the business environment: a fresh channel for corporate communications that allows information to flow back into the company in the form of reader comments.

Meanwhile, the other side of the story is taking place inside corporate firewalls—in an area that, traditionally, has been the realm of technology managers. Here, blogs (and the simple databases known as wikis) offer an alternative not only to e-mail, but also to even more expensive systems for project and knowledge management that often prove unpopular with workers, who find them difficult and unrewarding to use. You may not be thinking about blogs, but somebody at your company probably is— if they aren't using them already.

Blogs and wikis are part of a wave of low-cost software that has streamlined the way information is published, edited and found on the Web. They allow just about anybody to work in their Web browsers and write in natural language. And they are basic tools, not narrowly purposed applications. Because of that, blogs can be used to support any number of corporate operations.

At Lucent Technologies Inc., small workgroups have been using blogs and wikis since early 2004 for training and project management tasks, without the formal blessing of senior technology management. "People come to us with application needs, and weblogs allow them to publish and capture and record information in a useful way," says Michael Angeles, an information specialist in the company's library organization. "We're meeting the needs at a grassroots level by allowing them to jump out of a stuck situation." Engineers learning a new version of a big software package, for example, preferred using a training blog that allowed them to leave questions and comments instead of using an existing document management system described by Angeles as "cumbersome."

"People flock to things that are easy to use and deliver quick results," says Tim Bray, a technology director at Sun Microsystems Inc. "This is an effortless way to put things on the Web, and it's easy enough that people take it up on their own." Sun makes a blogging server available to all of its employees; so far, its company directory boasts about 1,500 weblogs, along with hundreds more that are not registered at the directory. Some Sun bloggers, including President Jonathan Schwartz and Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos, write for public audiences, while other blogs are accessible only inside the company.

This is technology that users don't have to wait for. Technorati Inc., a service that tracks weblogs, follows more than eight million personal sites. More than one million wikis have been downloaded from open-source sites, for use in organizing everything from design projects to conferences to lunch meetings. "For the first time since e-mail, users on a very large scale are learning a new writing interface," says Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext Inc., a company that sells wiki and blog-like applications, and boasts 20 members of the Fortune 500 among its customers.

As with just about every basic technology that experienced early grassroots acceptance—think e-mail, personal computers, spreadsheets and instant messaging—weblogs and wikis require technology managers to figure out how best to adapt the corporate environment to already popular tools, whether they are being used inside or outside of the firewall. There are real issues associated with blogs and wikis. On a basic level, they demand time and energy to maintain; like any computer tool, they are a potential time-sink. And when anyone can publish on the Web in seconds, and the results are there for all to see forever after, who speaks for the company, and who says what? Already this year, Google fired a worker for disclosing too much about everyday life within the company at his blog.

Yet the payoff from what some call "social computing" may be large. These tools can create what Charlene Li, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc., calls "a collaboration ecosystem you can put together as an IT manager." But Li, a blogger herself, maintains some perspective. "I don't know that this is going to be ubiquitous. It takes commitment no matter how easy it is," she says. "Maybe 90 percent of people won't have blogs, although a lot more than 10 percent will read them."

Users appear to be finding new ways to deploy these generic tools. A simple blog that begins as a project-management log for a small group can become a searchable knowledge-management repository when the project is done. Mayfield thinks blogs and wikis could lead to some grand accomplishments that are only beginning to come into focus. The success of Wikipedia, a Web-based encyclopedia created and edited by thousands of volunteers, suggests that companies might also engage in what Mayfield calls "collaboration at a profound scale."

But early successes are more prosaic. At Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, in Seattle, Movable Type blogging software from Six Apart Ltd. is used to manage an intranet that serves 3,000 employees. The software, which allows dozens of people to post news and updates to calendars, project pages, and policy documents without going through an administrator, or learning HTML, works better than an intranet built using Microsoft's FrontPage, which it replaced, says Web services manager Christian Watson. "The distributed authorship of people from different departments means the content is fresher," he adds. The blog software also obviated the need to invest in an expensive new content management system. "This was an internal project of the Web team, done without capital outlay and with minimal IT staff time," Watson says. "The CIO is aware of it, and how it works, but it saved him money before he knew that the money might have had to be spent."

Page 2

: CIOs MIA?"> CIOs MIA?

Technology managers may need to unclench just a bit as blogs go mainstream in the enterprise. "This is skunk works stuff, not huge top-down systems that you install and then try to convince people to use," Li says. "CIO involvement usually means a uniform platform, a managerial and organizational culture of control."

At Lucent, Angeles hopes to see blogs and wikis gain acceptance from IT and business executives. "The pitch is productivity, the sell is savings," he says. But acceptance doesn't necessarily mean companies need to manage blogs as big, CIO-level systems. "That will depend on the circumstances," he says. "If you are just replacing pages that nobody uses on the intranet, you may not have to throw a big system at it."

But blogs are being integrated into more traditional enterprise systems. "People are spending money on integrating blogging into stuff they do," says Jared Spataro, director of collaboration and knowledge management solutions for Open Text Corp., a vendor that has added weblogs to its existing product mix of collaboration and content management tools. He cites a large defense contractor that recently began using blogs in a multimillion-dollar project to help tie together businesses it has acquired.

But while Spataro says he is talking blogs with an increasing number of CIOs and other senior managers, many executives remain resistant. "We hear from users on small teams, inside big companies, who are told by IT that this can't be so good if it's so simple, and that it doesn't fit with other systems," says Jason Fried, who owns 37signals LLC, a small, Chicago-based application service provider that markets a Web-based project management tool built around a blogging system. Certainly vendors large and small are aiming at the traditional IT market. A small e-mail services and equipment seller called WhatCounts Inc. is even selling a "blog appliance" that promises CIOs a turnkey solution with familiar features like versioning and content approval.

Page 3

: The Power of Conversation"> The Power of Conversation

At Sun, no official direction from above has been required to inspire dozens of internal blogs. The company does offer blogging software and a directory page, but not everyone who blogs at Sun uses those resources. "People are just doing it for themselves," says Bray. "There is an Open Text implementation that we use for policy and legal work, but collaborative design groups are using wikis on their own, because they get lots of function with low complexity. It's like pens and paper—you don't have to tell people what they can do with it."

Sun's Schwartz writes his public-facing weblog with conversation in mind. One day he might muse on the state of open-source software, or post a letter asking IBM Chief Executive Sam Palmisano to change his user lock-in policies. "We believe this kind of communication creates community, and that a solid community around a company is not a threat—it's an ideal," he says. Many Sun blogs are open to public readers and their comments, making it one of the world's more permeable corporations. "Companies that view blogging as a threat are the same ones who view e-mail and cell phones as threats," says Schwartz, who draws about 200,000 readers per month.

"There's an immediacy of interaction you can get with your audience through blogging that's hard to get any other way, except by face-to-face communication," he says. "There's no other way any individual, never mind someone who's running a company as large as Sun, could speak face-to-face with that large an audience on a regular basis."

By enabling comments on its blogs, Sun can get a look at what mix of customers, partners, developers and employees is frequenting its sites, and respond to them. Customers who used to interact only with their salesperson can now communicate with members of the product team. "This is a fantastically effective listening device," says Bray. "Customers are coming to us directly as bloggers. People see us do something wrong or stupid, or missing a chance, and they tell us. We get dozens of comments a week that can help us, and they go to the right people—how else is a smart guy in Cleveland going to find the relevant person at a computer company with 30,000 employees?"

Recently Bray and another Sun blogger, Simon Phipps, were able to satisfy user requests to include certain functions in an operating system release. U.S. intelligence agencies that are Sun customers are themselves using blogs extensively, says Bray, and they go directly to Sun bloggers to "apply specific pressure for features they want."

"It's a morale booster in the company, and I believe it helps our position in the market," says Bray. "The balance of risk to reward tilts overwhelmingly to reward. When we have done well, we've had a community around us. We thought we'd fallen down on that in the wake of the bubble, and we see the blogs as a way to interact with the tech people in the back room, not just analysts and CIOs."

Sun used to have a policy that no public statements could be made by employees without legal and public-relations approval. That changed with the advent of blogging. The company did write a policy that makes it clear that workers cannot discuss things such as patents, litigation and trade secrets, and employees are encouraged to spell correctly, make liberal use of hyperlinks to other blogs and Web sites, and write what they know (see "Rules for the Unruly"). "The existing rules of any company apply to blogs, too," says Bray, who boils it down to a couple of simple concepts: "One, exercise good judgment and follow the rules. Two, if you don't, we have the right to fire your ass." He is sanguine about the possibilities. "I'm certain someone is going to do something really wrong and get fired or litigated—someone probably does that once a quarter here, so we have provided another avenue by which screwups can happen."

David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and a coauthor of the marketing book The Cluetrain Manifesto, says public-facing blogs with voices that sound recognizably human will kill the "pompous and inhuman" tone used in much corporate-speak. But companies that blog are still bound by legal and regulatory constraints, and some observers aren't convinced that the looser language inherent in blogs will allow them to say much more than they do today. "I see a limited utility to many corporate blogs," says John Robb, a consultant and early proponent of knowledge-management weblogs. "The information posted will be so heavily edited with an eye to the SEC, lawyers, PR and marketing. The CEO can't just say what he thinks, and the charismatic CEO will be quickly reined in. I'd be as likely to read a Bill Gates weblog as I would his book."

Rules for the Unruly

Rules for the Unruly

According to the old rules at Sun Microsystems Inc., employees could be fired for speaking about the company without permission. That changed last year, when senior management embraced blogging. "As of now, you are encouraged to tell the world about your work, without asking permission," say the guidelines compiled by Sun bloggers. Company lawyers approved the policy; bloggers who register at Sun's site must acknowledge remaining restrictions on discussing financial data and other confidential information.

It's a Two-Way Street. Whether or not you're going to write, look around and do some reading, so you learn where the conversation is and what people are saying. If you start writing, remember the Web is all about links; when you see something interesting and relevant, link to it.

Don't Tell Secrets. It's perfectly OK to talk about your work, but it's not OK to publish the recipe for one of our secret sauces. There's an official policy on protecting Sun's proprietary and confidential information, but there are still going to be judgment calls. If the judgment call is tough—on secrets or one of the other issues discussed here—it's never a bad idea to get management sign-off before you publish.

Be Interesting. Writing is hard work. There's no point in doing it if people don't read it. People like to know what kind of a person is writing what they're reading . . . [but] a blog is a public place and you should try to avoid embarrassing your readers or the company. Write what you know.

Avoid Legal Hassles. Talking about revenue, future product ship dates, roadmaps, or our share price is apt to get you, or the company, or both, into legal trouble.

Looks Count. If you're not design-oriented, ask someone who is whether your blog looks decent, and take their advice on how to improve it.

Think About Consequences. The worst thing that can happen is that a Sun sales pro is in a meeting with a hot prospect, and someone on the customer's side pulls out a printout of your blog and says "This person at Sun says that product sucks." Using your weblog to trash or embarrass the company, our customers, or your co-workers, is not only dangerous but stupid.

Post Disclaimers. Many bloggers put a disclaimer on their front page saying who they work for, but that they're not speaking officially. This is good practice, but don't count on it to avoid trouble; it may not have much legal effect.

Use Tools. We're starting to develop tools to make it easy for anyone to start publishing, but if you feel the urge, don't wait for us; there are lots of decent blogging tools and hosts out there.

RSS

: The New Push"> RSS: The New Push

Weblogs have proliferated so quickly that Merriam-Webster's made "blog" its word of the year for 2004. But how can anyone hope to keep up with all the information published at these personal sites, not to mention the many blogs and wikis they may be required to read at work? One answer is RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, which allows readers to track blog updates and many other kinds of published information.

Readers can subscribe to blogs, wikis and other publications that include an RSS tag (a bit of code that most blog software includes automatically) with a single click of a mouse. Then, each new update appears in a window on the readers' own Web browsers. Like blogs and wikis, RSS is a streamlined version of a familiar technology—in this case, the "push" applications that were supposed to remake Web surfing a few years back. "RSS is in fact push technology, but this time it's been adopted by millions of people," says Sun Microsystems Inc. technology director Tim Bray.

RSS technology is already hitting the big time. Large media companies, including the BBC and CNN, are using RSS to push their content past the clutter of the Web. So is Sony Music, which feeds subscribers information about its recording artists. "Anything that produces information at unpredictable intervals almost has to have an RSS feed," says Bray. "Who has time to run around and find stuff?" Whether the stuff in question is a BBC headline on a big cricket match, or an audio file (known as a "podcast," since many are loaded onto Apple Computer Inc.'s popular iPod) from National Public Radio, or the latest version of your workgroup's project wiki, now it comes straight to you.

RSS readers that display the particular feeds a reader has subscribed to can be downloaded for free and run in popular Web browsers. Portal sites such as Yahoo! have also started building them into their news pages. Over time, users get accustomed to reading Web pages of all kinds without leaving their own news aggregators, says Forrester Research Inc. analyst Charlene Li. That in turn helps push blogs into the mainstream. "People who read them won't necessarily think of them as blogs, but as regular Web pages seen on an RSS feed."

Inside a corporation, RSS could allow people to track updates on internal blogs about a given project, or to follow news about a particular product from external news sources. As with blogs and wikis, the IT issues are more cultural than technological; there are a couple of different syndication standards, but they are largely interchangeable and readable with the same browser-based applications. CIOs can probably have the biggest impact by making sure their internal publications support RSS feeds, so that the information can be pushed out to readers.

Expert Voice: John Patrick on Weblogs