Web 2.0, Sea Changes and the Enterprise

Wednesday Mar 7th 2007 by Steve Andriole
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Wikis, blogs, podcasts, RSS filters, mash-ups, crowdsourcing, and SOA: is it all just hype, or – gulp – is Web 3.0 almost here?

Well, it’s all the rage. Publications like Business 2.0, Fast Company and even Business Week are all writing about Web 2.0, the new Net and the next digital gold rush. What the hell is going on now? Is this another bubble? Will Web 2.0 companies crash and burn like their parents?

I’ve thought a lot about this over the past couple of years and really wanted to stay almost neutral on the rise of wikis, blogs, podcasts, RSS filters, mash-ups, crowdsourcing, service-oriented architecture and the impact they would have on us all, especially the enterprise. Initially I thought that these technologies were destined to support social networking in all its glory. But after thinking about it some more I realized that important changes were occurring, changes that would impact the entire computing and communications spectrum.

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I hate to say this. I was in the very heart of the dot.com bubble when I guided Safeguard Scientifics, Inc. into one Internet investment after another. We took lots of companies public in those days. Only a few survived. Many of the companies in the Safeguard family crashed and burned and lots of good people suffered. Is anything that different now? I find myself muttering phrases like “sea change,” “game over,” and “killer apps” way too often. I really thought I was cured.

So is this a sea change? I am pained to say yes.

Here’s only some of what it all means.

1) Wikis could revolutionize the way that companies document policies, processes and procedures. HR policies, sales manuals, and supply chain management processes can be documented in living wikis that evolve over time from input from in-house and external professionals. Why do we need to hire a consultant to tell us how to sell to our customers when we have countless in-house subject matter experts? There are lots of questions like this that can be at least partially answered in wikis – and let’s not forget how wikis can be used for training.

2) Blogs can be used to vet ideas, strategies, projects and programs. They can – along with wikis – be used for knowledge management. (Do we really need monster applications for knowledge management?) They can also be used as living suggestion boxes and chat rooms designed to allow employees to vent and contribute in attributable and anonymous ways.

3) Podcasts can be used for pre-meetings, in-meetings and post-meetings documentation. Repositories of podcasts can contribute to institutional memory and together comprise a rich audit trail of corporate initiatives and decision-making.

4) RSS filters can be used to fine tune information flows of all kinds to employees, customers, suppliers and partners. These custom news feeds can leverage information in almost effortless ways. I love the fact that we tell them what to do and they just do it. (Does anyone remember PointCast?)

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5) Mash-up technology makes it easier to develop applications that solve specific problems – if only temporarily. Put some end-users in a room full of APIs and watch what happens. Suddenly it’s possible to combine incompatible pieces into coherent wholes with the complements of companies that understand the value of sharing (for profit, of course).

6) Crowdsourcing can be used to extend the enterprise via the Web and leverage the expertise of lots of professionals on to corporate problems. If it’s good enough for Procter and Gamble and Dupont it should be good enough for everyone. Got some tough R&D problems? Post them on the Web. The crowdsourcing model will change corporate problem-solving – once everyone gets over the fear of taking gifts from strangers.

7) Service-oriented architecture is the mother of Web 2.0 technologies. The whole notion of mix-and-match with help from strangers tethered to each other on the Web is a fundamental change in the way we think about software design, development and delivery. SOA is actually a decentralizing force that will enable companies to solve computational and display problems much faster than they ever did in the past. What will it be like when we can point to glue and functionality and have them assemble themselves into solutions?

Look, I grew out of the hype culture a while ago, but I must admit that the things happening now clearly challenge the industry’s fundamentals – at least the fundamentals that have managed IT for decades. The good news is that there are legions of Web 2.0 devotees that will accelerate the changes occurring now. The bad news is that for every two steps we take forward we’ll take one backwards because change always has as many enemies as it has champions.

Ignore Web 1.0 Luddites and focus squarely on Web 3.0 while you happily exploit Web 2.0 tools, technologies and perspectives. In less than a decade we’ll look back on these days as the beginning of the next new thing, a time when collaboration redefined itself right in front of our screens.

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