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IT strategy: Twitter ye not

There is more than a slight hint of old wine in new bottles about the hype
surrounding web 2.0 technology. And the nagging scepticism is hardly surprising
as firms of all sizes have long been successfully using IT systems such as
email, shared documents and instant messaging to improve collaboration and
communication among staff members.

Given that these technologies are now well proven, why should firms need to
resort to anything as exotic as a wiki (a collection of web pages that enables
anyone who accesses it to contribute or modify content, says the ultimate wiki,
Wikipedia), or as apparently puerile as a social networking site? It is argued
in more conservative corporate circles that this new-fangled social networking
fad should remain the preserve of Facebooking and Twittering teenagers.

Plausible though this view may seem, companies risk missing potentially
valuable productivity and efficiency by avoiding these technologies. A study
from Forrester Research argues that web 2.0 technologies represent a
“fundamentally new way” for firms to connect with customers and prospects, and
harness the collaborative power of employees. Such is the scale of potential
benefits that Forrester Research estimates corporate spending on web 2.0
technologies will surge over the next five years, growing 43% each year to reach
$4.6bn globally by 2013.

It is worth taking a step back and seeing how the term web 2.0 was originally
defined. The expression was coined by open source technology advocate Tim
O’Reilly in 2004 and placed firmly in the corporate domain by his describing it
as “a business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the
internet as platform and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that
new platform.”

At its core, web 2.0 is nothing more or less than a catch-all term describing
web technology designed to boost collaboration among specific user groups. It
doesn’t matter if these groups are the board members of a multinational or the
Dagenham Girl Pipers. This collaboration can take a number of forms and be
hosted on a number of web 2.0 platforms, including socialnetworking sites,
wikis and blogs.

Reflecting the potential commercial value of these technologies, some of the
biggest corporates have already plunged into the web 2.0 waters. Large
enterprises such as General Motors, McDonald’s and Northwestern Mutual Life
Insurance have all made heavy use of web 2.0 tools, and 56% of North American
and European enterprises consider web 2.0 to be a ‘priority’ in 2008, according
to Forrester’s research.

These are the firms that have the vision to look beyond the consumer
reputation of social software and have the strategic IT plans in place to
harness the power of the technology, to support and improve collaboration. They
realise the way staff interact via social software can be beneficial when it
comes to undertaking non-routine work, or one-off projects undertaken by virtual
teams put together from staff who traditionally work in different business
divisions.

These companies represent the vanguard of the web 2.0 charge. But the
majority have yet to venture into social networking. Many are unsure where to
start or what business areas could benefit from deploying social software.

The question is, who pays for web 2.0 in the enterprise? IT departments are
wary of what they perceive as insecure, consumer-grade technology. In addition,
ad-supported web 2.0 tools on the consumer side have set the expectation that
such software should be free. A further complication comes from the fact that
web 2.0 technologies enter a crowded space dominated by legacy software
investments. As a result, large businesses are spending more on web 2.0
technologies as employee collaboration tools than as customer-facing tools, but
Forrester expects that trend to reverse by next year. By 2013, investment in
customer-facing web 2.0 technology will “dwarf” spending on internal collab
oration software by nearly a billion dollars, Forrester predicts.

Having said that, web 2.0 technologies are expected to effectively die out as
standalone offerings in the short-term. The enterprise web 2.0 tools currently
being touted will be subsumed by an inexorable tide of commoditisation until
they are simply add-ons incorporated into mainstream collaboration suites. In
Forrester’s view, web 2.0 will disappear into the fabric of the enterprise
within five years, but not before it has left a major mark on the way businesses
market their products and helped optimise collaboration among workers.

Whether they embrace it now or have it forced upon them, it is clear that
even the most reticent and conservative companies cannot afford to ignore social
networking. Put simply, if workers are not offered a secure, enterprise-class
offering many will turn to consumer social software – with potentially serious
implications for IT security.

So the advice to savvy firms is clear: whether you like it or not, social
software is coming your way and cannot be ignored. While the bottles in which
the technology is packaged may appear a trifle dusty, the smart thing to do is
raise your glasses to the brave new(ish) world of web 2.0.

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