David Tebbutt, SmallBizPod

Last weekfs Web 2.0 Strategies conference in London brought together people who were anxious to find out whether and how to implement eWeb 2.0Œ in their organisations. They came with a generally favourable disposition towards the subject but most of those I spoke to were finding it difficult to engender enthusiasm among their senior management. The main management concerns seemed to be etime wastingf and einformation securityf, especially when the Web 2.0 technology under scrutiny was Facebook.

Their bosses have businesses to run and they canft see how letting people throw sheep at each other or list their favourite music is going to help. They do, of course, assume that sheep-throwing is what you want to do when youfre supposed to be getting your work done. The concerns boil down to trust. Penny Edwards from enterprise social computing company, Headshift, was at the conference and this is what she had to say on the subject:

gcthe trust aspect is a no brainer. If companies think Facebook is an instrument for time wasting and donft trust their people to work autonomously and responsibly, then therefs little surprise that these same companies are struggling to adopt approaches and social tools grounded in openness, sharing and emergence.h

Web 2.0 isnft about perpetuating traditional business methods. Itfs about enabling people to find each other and the information they need without any intermediation by a team leader or a boss. It accelerates work and it creates and deepens working relationships. But only if a) the organisation employs knowledge workers, b) the staff are trustworthy and c) they are trusted. It doesnft mean abandoning all control, but it does mean delegating as much as is practicable. And formal control can still be exercised in the form of rules to frame behaviour. Mostly, though, itfs down to common sense – donft talk company secrets in public, donft copy confidential data,c

One company found that by creating a user forum, it could slash its support costs. Users are encouraged to go online to seek help and to help each other out. A body of support knowledge is being built that users and help desk staff can reach directly. Such informal knowledge bases are usually more up to date than any centrally defined and composed information source.

Speaker Dion Hinchcliffe spoke of what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – in a single day, thousands of volunteers copied details of 50,000 individuals to katrinalist.net (the link no longer works). Within five days, the list contained 88,000 entries. Anyone searching could, within days of the disaster, have a chance to find out if friends and loved ones were safe. Imagine how long it would have taken the authorities to specify and implement an equivalent public access database.

RoI was another term that reared its head. As conference chairman Euan Semple likes to say, eif the I is low, no-onefs going to give you a hard time on the R.f But, more seriously, some applications of the software gives a clear return, others are fsofterf – the effect of a helpful online presence on the brand image, the value of inventiveness that comes from the synergy of people from different disciplines working together, the value of hearing what customers really think and dealing with the issues raised, c For some this openness is unsettling, but it is likely to be the way successful companies build their brand loyalty and leadership.

Whatfs clear is that none of this is a quick fix. It will probably take months for participants to find their feet with social computing tools, whether initiatives are pushed from the top or drift up from the grass roots. Initiatives needs to be nurtured and encouraged and, indeed, monitored by people who understand the genre and who are enthusiastic without being blind to the practicalities. And, letfs be clear, these evangelists are very unlikely to be from the IT department. Web 2.0, despite its name, is principally about people, not technology. Itfs about ways of working with each other that subverts traditional hierarchies, with the software providing the necessary sharing and finding capabilities.

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