posted 17 Feb 2005 in Volume 8 Issue 5
KM Toolkit: The big blog debate
Recent coverage of weblogs, more commonly known as blogs, has highlighted both the opportunities and the potential dangers the medium presents. There is no getting away from the rapid increase in interest blogging is generating among knowledge-focused professionals, however, and more organisations seem ready to take a leap of faith and incorporate blogs in their KM toolkit. By Jessica Twentyman
For Joe Gordon, a 37-year old shop assistant from Edinburgh, 2005 is not turning out to be a happy new year at all. Gordon has just become the first person in the UK to be sacked for remarks he made about his job on his online diary or ‘blog’.
According to his former employer, bookseller Waterstone’s, those remarks – in which Gordon occasionally mentioned bad days at work and satirised his “sandal-wearing” boss – constitute ‘gross misconduct’ and ‘bringing the company into disrepute’. According to Gordon, they were a few throwaway comments, dotted about on a weblog largely devoted to science fiction, current affairs and events in the Scottish capital.
“This wasn’t a sustained attack. I was not deliberately trying to harm the company. I was venting my spleen,” Gordon, who had worked at Waterstone’s for 11 years, told the Guardian newspaper. “This was moaning about not getting your birthday off or not getting on with your boss. I wasn’t libelling anyone or giving away trade secrets.”
Gordon’s case may be the first of many in the UK, and it already follows many similar examples in the US (see ‘News update’). In recent years, blogs have proliferated across the internet as a means by which private individuals can disseminate information, generate commentary and engage a self-selecting audience. For that reason, blogs have yet to reach a more mainstream audience. As one commentator in the New York Times recently quipped, “Never have so many people written so much to be read by so few.”
Not every company, however, takes such a negative view of the blogging phenomenom as Waterstone’s. In fact, many are beginning to see the blog’s potential as a fast, informal way to share information such as project updates, research or test results, product-release news and industry headlines with employees, suppliers and customers.
Take, for example, software-development-tools company Macromedia. When the firm released a barrage of new products in 2001, product managers knew that the company’s customers were likely to have a number of questions about them. What was needed was a fast and efficient way to respond to these enquiries.
Product ‘evangelists’ at the company were one step ahead. Independently of the company, they set up a number of blogs, regularly updating their own thoughts on the features and functions of new products, and responding directly to developers’ questions about them.
Senior executives at Macromedia were so impressed with the success of this approach that the company began sponsoring the blogs itself. It now uses blogs “extensively” to enable its employees to communicate internally with their peers, says Andi Hindle, European product manager at Macromedia. “Marketing employees share ideas on new campaigns, sales employees share leads and report their successes, and development groups plan and design new products,” he says.
Other companies have followed suit. The corporate pioneers of blogs inevitably include a number of high-tech organisations, such as IBM, Dell and Sun Microsystems, whose customers and employees are highly IT literate, familiar with the concept of the blog and comfortable working in that medium. But other organisations reportedly using blogs internally include the Disney Corporation, the US Navy, telecommunications provider Verizon and investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.
Rise of the blog
In its most basic form, a blog is an online diary in which entries are posted in descending order, with the most recent entry at the top of the page. While people can read blogs just as they do pages found on other kinds of websites, they can also be subscribed to via a syndication technology called RSS (also referred to as ‘Really Simple Syndication’ or ‘Rich Site Summary’).
Once an RSS feed is enabled on a blog, other users can receive automated updates in a ‘push’ fashion. This typically requires specialised subscription-management software on the user’s client machine to periodically scan, aggregate and download updates to a blog reader. Trackback is another capability that differentiates blogs, enabling one blog to notify another that it is being referenced (for example, a link and a comment).
The style of a blog is largely informal – after all, it needs to engage an audience in order to get them to participate, says Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer at security tools company F-Secure and main author of the company’s blog, which informs employees, customers and journalists about the latest IT security threats. “We’ve had good feedback from readers – they like the tone of the blog. With our weblog, we write about our everyday work, so we can put our personality into it and maybe help some people solve security problems, too,” he says. “It also gives them some idea of what we do all day,” he jokes.
That informality makes a blog ideal for encouraging communication between employees, customers and suppliers that is “more horizontal, more peer-to-peer, social or network-centric” in nature than top-down commands from senior management, according to Mike Gotta, an analyst with IT-market-research company, the Meta Group.
That brings important benefits to employees, says Doug Cohen, director of product marketing at enterprise-content-management (ECM) company Open Text, which in 2004 introduced blogging capabilities into its LiveLink ECM system. “Blogs can help foster a sense of community in a company by creating a place for gathering and disseminating competitive intelligence to like-minded members, and serve as a sort of reputation-management system whereby popular authors can become influential opinion leaders within the corporation,” he says. In addition, he says, they help relieve the problem of e-mail overload and information residing mostly in individuals’ mailboxes, which creates an impediment to the sharing and retrieval of information in large corporate environments. “No messages get deleted or lost by centralising otherwise distributed informal knowledge.”
It can also benefit the companies they work for. “Corporate blogs are useful as a form of online corporate memory; they are much less complicated to implement than formal knowledge-management systems,” says Cohen. “Experts can maintain topic-specific journals that allow others to tap into their evolving thoughts and discoveries. As employees retire or leave the firm the knowledge is retained in an easily consumable format.”
A corporate blog may take one of many forms. It may be an internal blog, targeted to employees only. It may be external-facing, targeted to the general public, customers, partners or suppliers. It may be thematic, focusing on a particular event or marketing campaign. Or, it may be sponsored; that is, posted by an employee or invited guest who is authorised to write the blog, but whose content is not necessarily endorsed by the organisation.
These different categories need to be matched with blogging opportunities: knowledge and information-centric work activities that are conversational and chronologically driven. Within a software-development team, these could include specification analysis, design commentary, error analysis and change logs. Within a project-management team, they might include status reports by date and action items. For a pharmaceutical company, the clinical-trial team might use a blog to share lab notes, peer-review commentary and analysis of test cases. A sales and marketing team, meanwhile, might use a blog to bring competitive analysis to the attention of peers.
Danger: Blogger ahead!
Many executives, however, will be concerned that blogs represent a risk to their organisation by providing a forum for potentially unpopular or controversial views – as in the case of the Waterstone’s employee. They are, in part, right to feel that way, says Simon Halberstam, partner and head of e-commerce law at Sprecher Grier & Halberstam. “Once a blog is created, thoughts and opinions that were private to an individual become publicly accessible,” he says. “Sensitive or inappropriate information that appears on a corporate blog opens a company up to liability.”
Largely, this is a matter of having the right policies in place and training employees to respect these policies when posting comments on the blog, says Bill Saumarez, alliances director of ECM company Hummingbird. “With no governing body in place to ensure appropriate usage, organisations need to act now and implement policies to protect themselves or provide an ‘official’ forum for blogging to take place. Clearly, companies cannot stop their staff from blogging on their personal websites from home computers, but they can lay down guidelines that prevent employees from leaking sensitive information or making libellous comments,” he says.
These policies might include determining acceptable usage and establishing editorial controls and approval processes. Blogging needs to be supported by an individual’s managers to ensure time is allotted. For an external blog, a comparison should be made with how information is currently distributed (for example, to customers, suppliers and partners) to ensure consistency and credibility of a ‘blog channel’ versus other information flows, as well as to avoid potential conflicts (individual versus official views, for instance). For a thematic blog, if the event is ongoing, timely posts need to be generated. If the blog is linked to a marketing campaign, traffic needs to be directed to the blog from other touch points (for example, the website, direct e-mail, referral from a customer-support representative and so on).
Companies that decide to go ahead with a blog need to make a choice between a hosting service or implementing blog software. Free hosting services such as Google’s Blogger service (acquired with its 2004 purchase of Pyra Labs), for example, are unsuitable for corporate use: a blog based on the Blogger service is completely public, with no means to limit access. Paid-for blog-hosting services are suitable for internal corporate use and for experimental, external blogs – but most companies find that, if successful, they want a blog to be located on their own domain in order to establish a close identity between the organisation and its blog.
For these reasons, many organisations are choosing to install specialist blog-publishing software from companies such as Sixapart, SilkRoad, SocialText and WiredReach. These systems aggregate and publish unstructured content (held in a database or a flat file depending on the software) to the web by time and topic, and use XML to embed links in the blog from a variety of internet resources. The appeal of this kind of software is that it does not require the user to be familiar with XML or HTML programming. Typically, the presentation layer is separate from the content, so that the blogger can design the look and feel of the blog, and simply fit the content elements within whatever format the user wants to read. Many blogging systems provide templates to make this task easier.
With a raft of technologies available to make blogs easy to set up and use, it is likely that more companies will adopt them, says Gotta of the Meta Group. “Blogs can help corporate knowledge-sharing in a number of ways: getting people ‘on page’ about new strategies and products, establishing communities of practice, and encouraging creativity and idea generation,” he says. “Progressive strategists realise the potential impact a motivated and more knowledgeable workforce has on productivity, performance and innovation.” This will, however, be little comfort to Gordon, formerly of Waterstone’s Edinburgh, as he starts his search for a new job.
SIDEBAR: What is a blog?
A blog is a type of website that uses a diary or journal metaphor to convey information. Business-blog consultancy, the Big Blog Company, has identified five distinguishing features of a blog:
Its format is a single column of text, recording entries in a reverse chronological order, that is, the latest on top;
Its objective is to engage its audience, using an informal and conversational style;
A blog is constantly updated and links to external sources (or is linked to by external sources). Over time, these links build up credibility and web presence;
Blogs use personal publishing software such as Movable Type or Blogger, which means there is no need for a webmaster for 98 per cent of a blog’s administration. It also enables those not familiar with web design to communicate online with minimum technical knowledge;
Finally, all of the above expands the pool of contributors and enables any reasonably competent writer to communicate with a wider, online audience reaching beyond traditional parameters of internet interaction without complex or formal technical training.