Web 2.0 can boost your company’s fame and finances

Not wild about wikis? Not big on blogs? Not sold on Second Life? IT execs who ignore Web 2.0 collaboration technologies could be hurting their company’s bottom line.

That’s the message from enterprise IT leaders and industry analysts who are convinced that Web 2.0 technologies are the real deal. An IDC Canada study also indicates that there is an opportunity for enterprise to use Web 2.0 to market products and reach out to customers.

“Not embracing social networking is like saying I’d rather hide my money under the mattress than put it in a bank. Companies make a big mistake when they prohibit these tools out of the sheer fear of what employees will say when they communicate with one another,” says Rene Bonvanie, senior vice president at Serena Software, a maker of application life-cycle management tools.

Like some of the big corporate names in America today, including Accenture, Cisco, HP and Berkshire-Hathaway’s CORT, Serena is betting big on the benefits of open collaboration.

As proof of its commitment, the company has instituted “Facebook Fridays,” where executives encourage their 900 employees in 18 countries to connect with customers, business partners and each other over the company’s group portal on the popular social networking site. They are also using Facebook as a recruitment tool to attract young talent to the growing company.

“Students who are just coming out of universities live online. Their photos are on Flickr; they have a profile on Facebook; they even do their banking online. They aren’t going to go to a company where there is a huge wall where they can’t communicate with anyone,” Bonvanie says.

Irwin Lazar, an analyst at The Nemertes Research Group, says companies such as Serena have the right idea. “College students are on sites like Facebook and when they come into the workforce, they expect to use similar technology for their projects. They want a virtual place to share documents, have events and swap notes with each other. They don’t want to have to schedule face-to-face meetings or use e-mail,” he says.

Already, Serena has seen more than 90% of its employees create a Facebook profile and reach out to co-workers and clients. “There are some customers who only talk to us via Facebook. They’ve given up on e-mail because it’s such a horrendous technology,” he says.

The plan by Facebook to license its architectural platform to other social networking sites will boost the ability of SMBs to compete in the global market, according to Canadian online marketing specialists.

Tom Austin, vice president and fellow at Gartner, says that although penetration for social networking tools is less than 10% today, he is seeing a shift in the industry and predicts it will continue. “Companies are scratching at the surface of what they can do with these tools,” he says.

For instance, organizations can create a mash-up, a combination of multiple applications, of their CRM database and their employees’ Facebook contacts to identify personal links among sales prospects. “Companies should think about that kind of potential,” he says.

Second Life at CiscoAt Cisco, there is no doubt about the possibilities social networking tools hold. In fact, the virtual world of Linden Lab’s Second Life, which allows users to create computer-generated images of themselves, is quickly becoming a preferred method of interaction among the company’s employees, business partners and customers. “It’s much more intimate than a Webcast, because it’s bidirectional,” says Christian Renauld, Cisco’s chief architect of networked virtual environments.

He says employees are using Second Life to give tech talks, hold press conferences, train employees on new compensation plans, and do product launches. “We had a tech talk recently where people came from all over the world and after the presentation, they walked up to the speaker and exchanged business cards virtually,” Renauld says. His own team, which spans six time zones, uses Second Life for general-purpose collaboration. “Second Life allows me to have face time with them without burning through my travel budget,” he says.

While he’s quick to praise the virtues of Second Life, Renauld says he also is aware of its limitations. “We don’t talk private Cisco business on Second Life because it’s not secure. Instead, we use virtual workspaces we’ve created behind the firewall or switch over to protected conferencing software,” he says.

Accenture employees share with SharePoint

Chris Miller, senior director of project management at global consultancy Accenture, agrees that companies must exercise caution when deploying social networking tools. So, rather than using a public site, he opted to build a social networking platform behind the company’s firewall on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to connect Accenture’s more than 170,000 employees worldwide.

“We’ve built a page for every person in the company, which features non-private data about them, such as their title and location. It has replaced our static company directory,” he says. From there, employees can personalize their pages by posting photos, hobbies and areas of expertise, as well as create blogs for co-workers to subscribe to via RSS feeds. The company also uses RSS feeds to keep employees up to date on important corporate information, such as changes in benefits.

Miller says the trick is to keep these tools user-friendly. “If someone doesn’t know how to use the tools to help them do a better job, they won’t be effective,” he says. Accenture has added an introduction to the SharePoint portal to its new-hire orientation.

Bonvanie is also a proponent of employee training. He enlists his 16-year-old son, a heavy Facebook user, to help employees, whose average age is 41, apply the tool’s many features to their job requirements. “We’ve learned how to build out our friendships into sales connections,” he says.

Like Accenture’s Miller and Cisco’s Renauld, Bonvanie understands the risks of social networking. He takes precautions such as using SharePoint to ensure that only authenticated Serena employees can follow posted links to documents.

Web 2.0 tools boost project management

Lee Thomas, vice president of IT and product development at Berkshire-Hathaway’s CORT, says that while many of his colleagues come to Web 2.0 tools to increase collaboration, he is more interested in how they increase visibility into the organization.

With oversight of IT operations, product development and quality assurance, Thomas wanted a clear view into the project pipeline. “This was a grass-roots effort started by me. I wanted a single place where I could go to see a list of what everyone was working on and be able to drill down into details on each project,” he says. He also wanted to get tribal knowledge out of his team’s head and into a database.

He considered SharePoint, but wanted something less complex and more agnostic. So he chose Jive Software’s Clearspace platform, which he says is a perfect blend of wiki, blog and search technology that allows him to simplify project management.

For example, he says he’s replaced broadcast e-mail with blogs. “My supervisor used to send messages about team strategies via e-mail. But when new people came onboard, they didn’t have access to that tribal knowledge. Now all that goes into a blog so there’s a history that’s always accessible,” he says.

Users can also search through projects posted on the wiki for critical information. “I can ask questions and quickly identify the subject experts in that area,” he says.

HP’s BrainIt’s that kind of organic bubbling up that Bernardo Huberman, senior fellow and director of the Information Dynamics Laboratory at HP, is also hoping to generate through his social networking and collaboration projects. “We’re very interested in harvesting organizational knowledge, the stuff that’s not always visible within the organization. With the right tools, companies can get a sense of not only the organization, but the people who have relevant information,” he says.

Huberman and his team have developed a Web-based tool called Brain, or Behaviorally Robust Aggregation of Information, that enables HP as well as other companies to tap into the intelligence of its employees.

“We use groups of 15 people to determine the probability of critical outcomes. For instance, what is the likelihood a key product will be done by a certain date or a drug currently in development will make it to market,” he says.

Huberman says companies guarantee participation by offering cash incentives for each prediction. “Harvesting the wisdom of your internal crowd is more accurate than relying on pundits,” he says.

HP also uses an in-house developed tool called “WaterCooler” to determine what information is most important to its users. “It gathers and analyzes RSS feeds from inside and outside the company and displays the top bloggers and what they are blogging about,” he says.

Huberman says WaterCooler plays to a person’s natural curiosity about what other people are talking about.

It’s this type of innovation that Bonvanie is keeping his eye on. “We believe human contact is what makes companies successful. If people don’t communicate and collaborate, not a whole lot will happen. We know there are risks, but the positives far outweigh them in how much spirit social networking and collaboration bring to an organization.”

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