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The business case for Web 2.0

This article appears in the issue October 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 9]
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Web 2.0 technologies have gotten their share of press in the last year, most of it focusing on how users outside the enterprise—not customers or business partners—can make use of them. Much has been made of Web 2.0 enabling collaboration, but not specific forms of collaboration and not collaboration that happens alternately within the enterprise to: enable faster product development, market new products better, gain customer feedback on products under development, enlist beta product users and perform help desk functions, to name just a few Web 2.0 business applications. Now may be the time to swing the focus away from the lay user toward the business user or to business customers.

Enterprise goals for Web 2.0 tools

Mathew Lees, VP, online communities and social networking, Patricia Seybold Group, maintains that Web 2.0 technologies perform several functions for businesses in engaging the customer. They provide insight into customer needs: What information and knowledge are you getting directly or indirectly from your customers and partners that can filter into R&D and products, services and marketing? Exposure to and communication by means of Web 2.0 technologies can build customer loyalty and satisfaction. Obviously, says Lees, if customers have a say in how products are developed, they will tend to stay with the company that gave them that opportunity.

As communities of users evolve and grow, opportunities for indirect selling and marketing via referral and upselling present themselves. In communities of that sort, he adds, customers tend to help other customers instead of the business alone. That can take the pressure off customer support call centers and save vendors money. Product recommendations at the pre-sale stage and product critiques at the post-sale stage have greater credibility coming from another customer free of the overt sales agenda of vendors, Lees points out. So, what Web 2.0 technologies do best is facilitate focused long-term communities that further a business’ goals, as well as help customers get better products, services and support.

That said, businesses are making a mistake if they buy into Web 2.0 technologies without focusing on a specific problem to be solved. According to Lees, "Adoption of Web 2.0 technologies shouldn’t start with the tools—the tools should come secondary to your goals."

Forums and discussion boards

That does not mean users should ignore the tool’s capabilities and best uses. For internal constituencies, David Cearley, Gartner Fellow and VP, sees internal value in a number of tools from more traditional forums and discussion boards to more recently developed blogs, wikis and social networks.

For instance, he says, forums and discussion boards are being used inside businesses to help drive company ideation and innovation. Companies like Hewlett-Packard (HP) are deploying those tools either to obtain employee ideas for new products, customer service or changes to the organization. "What sustains employees’ interest in these is being in a community of their peers to help make their work life better or improve what they deliver to the customer, which can drive value to the company and satisfaction to the customer as well," Cearley says.

Lees says that those tools are particularly good for many-to-many conversations among customers and at building a knowledge repository for and by customers over time. At a company developing a complex product like a high-tech one, he adds, participants can build a parallel knowledgebase that complements the more formal one of tech sheets and other documents.

Virtual communities

Virtual communities are tools that facilitate formal groups getting together around particular projects or activities that cross the normal organizational boundaries. "You might have communities that are dealing with sales representatives targeting the telecommunications industry and sharing tips and techniques on what they’re hearing in their interactions with telecommunications companies," Cearley says. Sales, service and even product people might participate to the extent that the discourse in the community helps them further their goals.

Blogs
Blogs are a different animal. They allow an individual to present his ideas to spawn a discussion within the blog. So the blog is driven by one personality, though it may point to other people’s blog entries if the entries support the blogger’s agenda. "You can think of a blog as an ongoing linked series of conversations," Cearley says.

A blog might have many different types of topics, and an individual blog entry often acts as a different kind of discussion board within the blog. There can be comments on that blog entry and pointers to other blog entries from different individuals on the same topic.

"Blogs are particularly useful when you have individuals who are doing thinking and research and using the blog as a way of publishing their ideas and activities out to a broad group within the organization," Cearley says. He adds that defense agencies are using blogs as a way to publish the intelligence information that individual analysts have gathered, so it is available to other intelligence analysts who can read it and comment back and forth between blogs that are related by content.

Gautam Desai, VP of research, social networking, Doculabs, poses a caveat to the spread of blogs. "You don’t see blogs being used a lot enterprisewide but rather departmentally," he says. For instance, groups within an IT department, like engineering, use blogs to better communicate and distill findings and activities in key areas they’re working on within their group. Often the blog is opened and a group manages it, or they open it up to a larger audience that can also author entries. Desai says, "So it’s used as a knowledge sharing tool in many organizations today, and an individual may not necessarily be the sole author."

Wikis

Unlike blogs, wikis involve multiple participants working on the same document. Cearley says they are common in IT departments to create documentation when many developers and testers work on a particular product and they need to document what they’re doing and how the application works.

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