KMPro Chicago hosted an excellent discussion of Blogs in Business with Jim McGee, Robert Scoble, Ian Kennedy and Jon Powell. We covered a lot of ground with a focus on how blogs could be valuable both for marketing to the outside world and for building conversations within the company.
One very interesting thread throughout the evening of conversation was the idea of how blogs can be used to extend the socialization framework that we get when smart people gather around the cube, board table or in the lunchroom. In those situations, people are sharing and learning from one another, but it happens only within a small group of people who happen to be near each other. With blogs (and admittedly other social software) people can extend that reach out to larger and larger groups of people. This was the area where Jon Powell, invited as a skeptic about blogging, saw the most value in what blogging could bring to Hewitt and other corporate environments. Humans seem naturally inclined to share and help one another, and the capabilities being developed with blogging give people more opportunities to do so.
An example of how blogs might work within an organization: Rather than having status reports sent on email, ask those people to post their status reports to a blog. With email, only the recipient knows what is happening and they can provide feedback only when they understand the matter in question. With a blog and with people subscribing to that blog's web feed, there are many more eyes viewing the reports and many more eyes that can provide feedback or connect the author the help they might need. It's useful to note that while most readers may just skim, the small minority that do take an interest in the material are exactly the ones that you want taking an interest. They have the background, interest and time to do so, where the immediate supervisor may not.
In describing blogs, Robert Scoble drew from his Five Pillars of Conversational Software: 1. Easy to publish; 2. Discoverable; 3. Social behaviors become visible; 4. Permalinks to a specific item; 5. Syndication. These items were referred back to a number of times throughout the conversation as people asked about other examples and technologies that seemed to be similar. For example, e-mail is neither discoverable, permanent nor syndicated. Similarly, Sharepoint, while 'easy' to post and permalink, is not easily discoverable. Discussion groups have a number of the pillars, but they seem to lose in the arena of social behavior in that individuals cannot build their own presence, other than through being known as the expert within the given discussion group.
The idea of easy publishing was discussed by a few people. Rather than needing to "create a website" or "write a paper," the only thing a blog posting requires is a few cogent thoughts and/or maybe a reference to someone else's cogent thoughts to which you want to add more. Along this vein there was also conversation around the difficulty of doing this within a corporate environment. Traditionally, corporations have not encouraged people to write what they think - my last company had a policy that more-or-less said this for fear of the legal discovery process. In addition, "people are a lot more worried about making fools of themselves" in corporate settings than in their personal space. The corporate culture will clearly need to change if blogging is to take root.
McGee suggested that blogging in the business - and in society - is going to go through a similar adoption curve as has e-mail: everyone has an address today as a matter of course, but not so many years ago people were trying to figure out what value email might bring to the organization. Blogging - or the ideas behind blogging - will become familiar over time.
Powell mentioned that Hewitt has over 10,000 internal Lotus Notes databases. In post-meeting conversation, a former Anderson person mentioned that they had over 17,000 Notes databases. The question was raised, how will "giving everyone a blog" change the issue that this information is written down and forgotten? How will blogs change the fact that we are drowning in information (or data)? For one, the auxiliary tools that read web feeds (syndication) or that search across weblogs are critical to the difference. In addition, it is the whole nature of how blogs are used and how they operate. A blog is generally written and owned by an individual; it is where they develop their voice and develop reputation: online discussion groups and databases don't provide this level of ownership to the material.
How does one get started with all of this? People. Passionate, smart people. Give them the conversational tools and they will expand their over-the-cubicle conversations out into their wider sphere of contacts and sources, creating more potential for innovation and flexibility within the organization.
McGee made an almost throwaway comment: Within a few years, knowledge workers will probably be taking their own technology into the workplace and negotiating connectivity with their employer. Why? The knowledge worker is going to be relying on that technology to operate in any space, whether it is home or work or consulting or the next job. Why should she be locked into an environment in which she is not familiar or effective?
Scoble has mentioned many times that he monitors nearly 1,000 blogs. He claimed this evening that he could see getting upwards of 10,000 blogs as the capabilities of web feed readers continually grows and improves.
While trying to find Robert's Five Pillars, I discovered Sylloge's Five Pillars of Social Software: Identity, Presence, Relationships, Conversations, Groups. A nice parallel with Robert's pillars above.