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.”

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