By Dion Hinchcliffe,
For well over a year now we’ve seen reports and announcements from a major industry analyst firms and others tracking the movement of Web 2.0 ideas into the enterprise. Gartner, Forrester, McKinsey, and many others have all weighed in on the trends or made recommendations, sometimes cautious and sometimes optimistic, that organizations should start heading down the Web 2.0 path. And public interest in Web 2.0 in the enterprise is widespread too, not in the least exemplified by the fact that Web 2.0 trends of all kinds — business and consumer both — are tracked closely here in many blogs on ZDNet.
We’ve also seen that the term itself has moved from passing familiarity in the leading edge of the technical community to nearly universal recognition in both IT and mainstream business circles. That Web 2.0 is a complex topic there is little doubt since it’s often described as a grab bag category of the latest ideas and movements that include — but are by no means limited to– wikis, blogs, RSS, podcasting, content tagging, mashups, and social networking.
The big question? What do you really need to know today about Web 2.0 in the enterprise?
Reducing all of these ideas into an underlying set of principles is what people like Tim O’Reilly have been doing for several years now. It’s generally understood by most people that the Internet has changed considerably in the last half-decade and that those changes have reached a tipping point that’s enabling brand new business models, unleashing a wave of innovative products, influencing public behavior on a large scale, and in particular, resulting in entirely new types of online businesses. But as I discussed in last year’s discussion on Web 2.0 reductionism, trying to get at the core motive force behind things as disparate as rich user experiences and collective intelligence is no small task.
Fortunately, we are indeed as an industry starting to get a handle on how all the pieces of Web 2.0 fit together. For instance, it’s now clear that having hundreds of millions of people globally connected together pervasively via one single high speed two-way network (aka the Internet) will result in many of the things we’re now seeing in the marketplace. It seems a fundamental new widespread focus on leveraging that two-way aspect of the network deeply in our online products, as well as increasingly playing to the fundamental strengths of the network that is the Web, is teaching us invaluable lesson after invaluable new lesson for our businesses. The result is that the living laboratory of the Web is now the source of the greater part of our innovation in business these days. Today’s World Wide Web is a larger ecosystem and with far more brainpower and activity that any single organization could ever hope to match.
Web 2.0 Transforms The Business Landscape
The story of Web 2.0 began with things like open source software, which is nothing more than entire products created ad hoc by volunteer armies of contributors that now outnumber — by virtue of the sheer capacity the network — the world of commercial software efforts. It’s not lost on careful watchers that open source software tends to be more feature rich, secure, and bug free that commercial software, despite being created by thousands of loosely coupled, self-selected contributors. Since then, this idea of commons-based peer production of products on the global Internet has spread through just about every other type of product that can be delivered over the Web from marketing, advertising, collaboration, news, customer service to banking, investment, fund raising, disaster management, and dozens of other types of business and civic activities. This reflects the fact that the majority of productive power is on the edge of our networks and always has been. We’ve tinkered for a couple of decades to build good networked software that took advantage of this fact but we didn’t yet have enough knowledge of the best techniques for creating them. That things like peer production are now moving to the center of the design of online products finally shows a maturing realization that our older, more traditional views of networked applications were just not effective as they could be.
Combine the rise of peer production with the Web growing up into a true software platform as part of the rise of rich user experiences and SaaS. Then witness the movement of the Web out into the world in the last few years and exploding into thousands of types of new Internet devices, mobile and otherwise, that deliver — and just as importantly if not more — capture value in every corner of the globe and in every conceivable setting.
An overarching and compelling new business vision
And while there more trends beyond these that are driving Web 2.0, the upshot is that the productive capacity of the world is increasingly wired into the Web and can be leveraged by building online products that encourage the close cooperation and involvement of those at the edge of the network. You can get now people on the Web en masse to build innovative software applications or help you accumulate vast and almost infinitely rich databases of information and even foster enormous online populations for which you are the preferred intermediary and of which you can tap the combined intelligence.
It’s this more comprehensive and integrated vision of Web 2.0 and its ingredients consisting of 1) people, 2) a pervasive two-way network, 3) continuous, around-the-clock activity by a billion Web participants, and 4) products that actively leverage the first three items that gives us a better perspective on understanding the strategic advantage of Web 2.0 to our businesses. Individually sorting through the collection of Web 2.0 techniques and technologies tends to ignores the forest for the trees and prevents us from getting any more than a tactical approach to transforming our businesses to a more Web 2.0 model.
For it’s this shift in power and control from the center of the network to the edge that has been the hallmark of the Web 2.0 era. For businesses to succeed in the 21st century will require a change in many of the assumptions and long-held ground rules for what works and what doesn’t when it comes to creating successful products and obtaining better business outcomes.
It’s presently not easy task to create a roadmap for businesses to create an orderly transition to Web 2.0 models. For one, the pace of change and innovation on the Web today is daunting, making roadmaps age and become obsolete almost as soon as they are complete. The second is that many aspects of Web 2.0 approaches are fundamentally disruptive and will require businesses to do serious soul searching and often take on real risk to the brands, reputations, and many a product line’s long-term future. However, the dilemma is that standing still is just not an option as we increasingly see industries remade in surprisingly short times. One of the best examples is YouTube’s sudden and near complete dominance in online video, eclipsing in less than two years an industry (broadcast and cable TV) that had built up over 40 years, by using a small team of talented entrepreneurs who had a solid understanding of the rules of Web 2.0. This type of disruption is likely for most industries in the next few years — and is even actively taking place today in some — and is the broader part of the more serious and transformative aspects of Web 2.0 that is increasingly getting attention from business leaders.
Web 2.0 in the enterprise: Strategic or tactical?
For many managers and workers however, these great and historical shifts are beyond their scope or mandate, and they just want incremental improvements to their area of the business and avoid obsolescence. In fact, this is currently one of the more sustained and germane aspects of Web 2.0 for most businesses in the short term and is an important part of Web 2.0 in the enterprise story. Most organizations will be focusing on tactical experiments and pilot efforts as they begin to dabble with Web 2.0 and see how they can apply it to their local corporate culture and unique business situations. But whether one is looking at completely transforming a business at a strategic level, or just applying a few Web 2.0 techniques to a corner of a business that can benefit from it, the message is clearer and clearer business leaders: Significant change is afoot and now is the time to start looking hard at how to embrace it.
So for many business and IT leaders it can be a significant challenge to keep a current and up-to-date understanding of Web 2.0 and how it applies to the enterprise. What sort of changes to the fabric of the organization is required? What kind of technologies and platforms should be created? How should online products be tweaked or transformed to deliver more value to customers and get even more back?
To help answer this, I created an up-to-date Web 2.0 in the enterprise visualization (above) that is my take on the major elements of Web 2.0 and how it applies to the two great aspects of Web 2.0; the social and the technical. I’ve further divided the visualization into the internal and external aspects of Web 2.0 (with full realization there is heavy overlap and blurring between the two) and to convey that there is indeed for most enterprises important differences between how they will apply Web 2.0 to their customers, partners, and suppliers and how they apply Web 2.0 internally. This distinction will likely erode in coming years but for now, there is certainly still a very clear division between the insides and outsides of most organizations.
Note: I’ve liberally mixed technologies, platforms, and concepts together in the above visualization. The only criteria was that an item had to be of significant enterprise importance to make the cut. There are many aspects to Web 2.0 as you can see from this popular visualization, but these are the probably the most important ones when thinking about Web 2.0 in the enterprise.
The aspects of Web 2.0 in the enterprise as of mid-2007
We’ll now do a brief clock-wise tour of the key aspects of Web 2.0 the enterprise as presented above. The four quadrants of the visualization divide the world of enterprise Web 2.0 into social and technical halves vertically and external and internal halves horizontally. There are certainly other ways to divide the concerns of Web 2.0 but this method is good for several reasons. One is that the social dimension of Web 2.0 is often underappreciated in IT circles (my experience) and calling it out at top conveys both the change in focus for IT and how important it is from a business perspective. The second is that aforementioned bright line that presently exists between internal IT solutions and external offerings. These have very different contexts and while the same Web 2.0 platforms can often serve both, they are provisioned and used very differently right down to what filters and controls are applied.
Internal Social Aspects
Wikis: Popular collaboration and sharing platforms like wiks are sometimes offered to customers these days but are primarily an intranet presence in most organizations today. Wikis, or shared Web pages anyone can write on (leveraging the two way network) are part of the burgeoning Enterprise 2.0 story and are also one of the most easily adopted Web 2.0 platforms in the enterprise. I often hear stories from organizations that witness wikis sprouting like crabgrass in their organization. Wikis are a true Web 2.0 platform as opposed to a mere application and can form basis of almost any kind of user-generated Web building inside an organization. Itensil and IBM’s QEDWiki are great examples of the full potential that is achievable today.
Read a discussion of enterprise context and wikis.
Collaboration 2.0: An unofficial term that refers to tools similar to wikis but a bit more structured, often around workflow. Examples of products in this space include things like SharePoint and ClearSpace, which provide alternate models to achieve ad hoc outcomes by accumulating user generated content and structure. Complexity is the killer of contributions in almost all types of software and the most effective Collaboration 2.0 products are extremely simple yet use models that often don’t resemble the wiki, which is why it gets its own listing.
Not sure why Web 2.0-style collaboration is such a big deal, read about the potential productivity gains by enabling tacit interactions.
Emergent structure: This is not a type of Web 2.0 software but an important and highly desirable outcome created by the operation of well-designed two-way networked applications over time. It’s no accident that Web 2.0 sites typically have very little structure and what they do have is highly freeform. Tagging is a pre-eminent example of emergent structure. I often find that tagging is overemphasized while the overall value of emergent structure in user-powered software is not nearly appreciated enough and I subsume tagging into this enterprise Web 2.0 bugged.
The underlying concept of emergent structure is that we guess far too much up front about the features of the software we need or the way the data should be organized. We speculate how applications will be used and over-predefine the requirements and design of our networked systems, forcing them down paths before we have enough experience to find the right path. Web 2.0 applications strongly favor emergent structure and coevolution with communities of users because it creates better long-term results that evolve organically and stay up-to-date. Agile project management methods have longed understood this but with Web 2.0 it’s even more extreme. Encouraging emergent results is vital from a business perspective because it creates solutions that fit best and continue to fit long term. Also, emergent structure is more efficient that enormous requirements gathering exercises; just pull the information in real-time from the other end of the network.
Explore how agile methods have begun evolving into Web 2.0 methods in the age of the perpetual beta.
Expertise Location: I am conflicted about making this a top level aspect of Web 2.0 in the enterprise but I’m also amazed that this continues to be one of the more serious problems plaguing many large enterprises: Who in an organization actually knows what you need to know right now? Web 2.0 platforms, which usually tie contributions back to the original contributor allow the location of workers who are most likely to have the information you are looking for. This means an organization must have public, social platforms like blogs and wikis in an organization and they will also have to be widely used. But once they are, the efficiency gains, reduction of duplicate efforts, and emergent collaboration that results have enormous business potential.
Collective Intelligence including Prediction Markets: Often referred to as the core principle of Web 2.0; collective intelligence refers to turning the combined information in all the minds at the other end of the network into the richest and most updated online product possible. Unfortunately, collective intelligence is still poorly understood and under-leveraged both on the Web and in the enterprise. Questions about its ability to create accurate products, to reach desired outcomes predictably, and even a good sense of where it can be applied most effectively are still open questions for many. Yet there is no denying that many of the most compelling and successful products on the Web are creating using collective intelligence approaches. Wikipedia is one of the best known examples, but so are search engines, which take the combined output of the Web that we’ve created as inputs and give a mirror to look at it.
As a result of this, approaches like prediction markets — which have been with us for a while but are ideal in a Web 2.0 environment — are coming into play which have ways of filtering out the bad information and mining the best results from a host of contributions, such as Slate recently did for the 2008 presidential race. One of the best ways to tap into the Wisdom of Crowds, collective intelligence also creates the strongest, richest, and most resilient products and business solutions possible. Collective intelligence can be very loosely or very highly structured depending on the desired outcome, from the unstructured comments in blogs and peer production news sites like Netscape.com to highly focused predictive markets like Pickspal or DigStock. I put collective intelligence on the internal side of the enterprise here but it really belong across the spectrum in the enterprise. The reason it’s the internal side for now is that I believe it will tend to take off inside of organizations at first as they learn to apply it.
Ad Hoc Social IT: It’s amazing that even chat systems are relatively rare in the enterprise, but what’s happening increasingly are easy-to-deploy tools of the Office 2.0 variety which understand the value of two-way and multi-way social communication including making it permanent, searchable, and joinable. Arguably a branch of Enterprise 2.0, this concept applies to the multitude of communication mechanisms we now have in the enterprise from SMS, MMS, email, chat, IM, forums, groupware which is suddenly growing much more powerful because of Web 2.0 augmentation. Example: The SMS texting protocol for mobile phones is generally point to point, but make it social and connected to your social network, such as with the well-known and popular Twitter application, and now you have an application that is taking an underpowered Web 1.0 protocol and leveraging the full power of the network and its audience to achieve the maximum possible network effect.
Employee Blogs: One of the most frequent polls I do in my conference talks is to ask the audience if they have an easy way to create a blog on their intranet. The answer is “yes” usually in the 10-15% range. Yet blogs are an ideal Web 2.0 platform that workers can use to create “channels” for their content and work on the intranet. Blogs, and as importantly, the content in the comments, can provide the information or the answers to questions that workers desperately need and can find via search, but can’t find an enterprise’s closed email environments and file systems where so much knowledge resides. The most senior workers in organizations are often plagued with providing the same information over and over again, year after year, and usually have to go through complex and time-consuming processes to get information posted on the intranet that would offload them. Blogs work so well because they are incredibly simple, support syndication, and harness collective intelligence in their comments. Though really a part of Collaboration 2.0, I broke this out separately because many enterprises are very behind in deploying blogs to their workers even though they are usually sorely needed. To get a sense of how to add enterprise context to make blogs work in your organization, here are some strategies I’ve assembled.
Web 2.0 platforms can liberate an intranet and make it a vibrant, employee-powered collective intelligence platform.
Internal Technical Aspects
Data aggregation: I like to say that most enterprises are awash in data and we are mostly failing to bring this information forward into Web-based platforms for use, remixing, and productizing. This also true of many older Web-based systems and there is not nearly enough service-enablement and exposing of data via highly consumable forms such as RSS, APIs, or even badges and widgets. A lot of data is also just not being collected or is kept behind walled gardens like data warehouses, relational database, and other storage forms which are difficult to use without extensive programming or expensive products. The Web, however, has largely solved this problem in the large with the development of search engines, syndication, aggregation, hyper-aggregation, and other techniques and I would not that this is a much larger problem for the most part. By following Web 2.0 best practices, enterprises can liberate their data, make it more relevant on a daily basis to the organization, and make sure it’s being readily incorporated into new online products and services.
Enteprise mashups: The prevalence of many high value services and easy ways to combine them together to form new business solutions on-the fly has led to the concept of situational software, where users can create nearly instant business value by leveraging the full IT resources of the enterprise as well as the open Web. Enterprise mashup platforms can enable this, though most mashups are created by simple copy-and-paste solution for now until the tools mature. I’ve written about this extensively before and you can read about mashups as a major new software development model here.
Rich User Experiences: To become a true software platform the Web page model had to grow up and the result has been rich user experiences. A rich user experience is nothing more than a Web pages that has the interactivity and immersiveness of desktop software installed on PCs. Ajax, Flash, and Silverlight are three key ways that rich user experiences are created on the Web and intranet today. The advantages of rich user experiences is they are always up to date, require no installation of the application on the desktop, can be used from anywhere with a Web connection, and more. Disadvantages include immature tools, security concerns, and a breaking of the Web model including content crawling, search, and analytics to name just a few. However, it’s clear that rich user experiences are here to stay, are very popular with users, and can boost worker productivity and potentially cut costs of acquiring, managing, and maintaining software significantly.
Choose an rich user experience platform poses challenges today.
Perpetual Beta: In the Web 2.0 era, online products and services are really never finished and must continuously improve to compete. However our traditional project management processes tend to force us into a linear process with a well-defined start point and end point. The most successful Web 2.0 products are continually co-evolved and developed with their users in an ongoing cycle, leading to a natural end-point sometimes called Web Development 2.0 that is far more extreme and highly competitive than we are generally used to in the enterprise. Going hand it hand with emergent structure above, the perpetual requires a significant rethinking of internal processes for product development and maintenance. Those that don’t adopt the processes that support the perpetual beta will likely face the unpleasant prospect of competing with businesses that use these approaches to innovate much faster, have products that their customers identify with more, and out-evolve their counterparts in the marketplace.
Syndication: One of the signature realizations of the Web 2.0 era is that content is of very limited utility when it’s located in just a single place. Letting it flow across the network to where it’s needed is a much better way to get results and make sure it gets leveraged. Despite years of experience, we’re still just learning about how to fully take advantage of syndication for better business results. The bottom line: Most enterprises are currently not projecting actionable data to where the business needs it because there’s just not enough syndication of vital business information. Examples of useful feeds: What unfilled positions are outstanding? What project schedules are late? Who are the new hires and what do they do? These are all simple but useful datapoints that anyone could pull within the enterprise if such feeds existed, but they usually don’t. Syndication is also of vital importance externally and that will be covered in open APIs and feeds in the next section.
SOA + WOA: The vision of a completely integrated enterprise was the promise of service-oriented architecture or SOA. Despite tens of billions of investment spent by enterprises around the world each year in integration efforts, SOA is still fighting an uphill battle despite being largely based on Web technologies. However, integration tends to work quite well on the open Web, but interestingly by largely not using SOA models, which tend not to be Web-oriented. I’ve summarized this issue many times in this blog and elsewhere but the bottom line is that traditional SOA isn’t going away and Web-oriented techniques are coming to the fore. This will help us achieve everything from using rich user experiences as the face of SOA to enabling ad hoc integration like enterprise mashups. While it may sound like a low-level plumbing issue, WOA can achieve real and actionable business results by adding a Web model of integration and architecture that can put many of the benefits of the open Web directly into worker hands.
It turns out that Web 2.0 and SOA have a core set of identical goals but often go about them in a different way.
SaaS: The world of installed desktop software circa the 1990s and early 2000s is rapidly giving away to software that runs entirely on the network and uses Web technologies. This is known as Software as a Service (SaaS) and is one of the fastest growing models for software, if not the fastest. You can have SaaS without rich user experiences but increasingly the best SaaS tends to be a blend of traditional Web page-based apps and rich user experiences both. SaaS can be on premises or off premises and this allows economies of scale to be offloaded to SaaS providers, can upfront software acquisition costs, and can greatly improve deployment, manageability, and licensing headaches. The entire Office 2.0 software list is a great example of Web 2.0 era SaaS and will increasingly replace existing apps right down to Microsoft Office and other popular business productivity applications.