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Blogs and wikis: ready for prime time?

Blogs began springing up more than a decade ago as a way for individuals to maintain online diaries, voice their opinions on politics and vent about consumer products. They proliferated rapidly, and thousands became millions. Tainted perhaps by the image of bloggers as gossipmongers, blogs were not taken seriously as enterprise applications until fairly recently. Now, a wide variety of enterprises are beginning to see the value of blogs in functions ranging from customer communication to tracking and reporting.

A blog is defined in Wikipedia as a Web site where journal entries are shown in reverse chronological order. Typically, blogs also show on a sidebar the topics covered by the blog and sometimes the number of entries for each topic. Blogs usually provide access to their archives, and a way to post comments. Sometimes, news feed formats such as RSS are also provided. Heavily hyperlinked, blogs are characterized by connections to other blogs and related Web sites.

Corporations are using externally facing blogs for such functions as presenting commentaries about new products and responding to general inquiries from consumers. For example, the Direct2Dell blog answers questions about XPS 700 computers and provides updates on Dell's battery recall. Although blogs are much less sophisticated than official corporate Web sites, they have an immediacy and interactivity that is hard to match using other approaches. Therefore, they are ideal for situations where a quick response is called for.

Blogs have both content management and collaborative components, though in a simpler form than traditional enterprise applications. Those capabilities have led to some enterprise blog applications that move well beyond the basic chronological model into functional areas such as project management. Add to that the emergence of permissions, search and other enterprise must-haves, and blogs start to look like real contenders for the enterprise market.

ShoreBank is a community bank that was established in Chicago more than 30 years ago to provide loans in areas that were underserved by traditional commercial banks. The bank has a desire to innovate that is reflected in its use of technology as well as in its business activities. John Evans, senior VP and IT director at ShoreBank, began investigating the potential for using blogs several years ago after an executive in its holding company asked about them.

"Blogs were not on my radar as a serious enterprise application," recounts Evans, "but I found they were very content-rich, and I began to see their potential." Some companies, Evans discovered, were using them as an alternative to intranets. After conducting more research, Evans selected Traction TeamPage from Traction Software to deploy at ShoreBank. Traction TeamPage Release 2.6 in 2002 brought one of the first enterprise blog and wiki software platforms to the market.

One of the more compelling needs at ShoreBank was for a tracking system to manage dozens of IT projects that were underway. "We currently have about 75 IT projects in various stages of development," says Evans. "They range from rollouts of new banking technology to follow-ups for financial audits."

Using TeamPage, ShoreBank created searchable workspaces for each project. Project milestones form the nucleus around which the project information and communication are organized, including the individual responsible, the milestone, the requirements, the issues to be addressed and any open questions.

Metadata allows users to view all the information related to a given milestone. Key events are visible to the project team, and e-mails can be sent to TeamPage rather than being buried in an individual's inbox.

"TeamPage is the way we fuel our project management activities as well as the project portfolio as a whole," adds Evans. "We can track all the relevant materials that have to do with any project that's going on."

Flexibility is a hallmark of enterprise blogs and wikis, according to Jordan Frank, VP of marketing and business development at Traction. "The ever-present ability to comment on anything means that everything is up for discussion," he says. That philosophy contrasts with document management, where the content tends to be more static. Blog content in TeamPage canbe displayed across workspaces, without cutting and pasting, just by changing a tag. Traction "sections" display content chronologically, alphabetically or in a specified order, based on almost any criteria that may suit the reader's need or support a workflow.

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