Chewing Gum, Blogs, and Wikis

It's been fascinating to both observe and participate in the debate about blogs and wikis in the enterprise. Just like the hand-wringing over personal computers entering the workplace in the 1980s and echoing the Web and email debates of the 1990s, enterprise IT executives and content professionals seem to be getting their collective knickers in a twist about blogs and wikis these days. Remember when executives believed email might "expose a corporation to its secrets being revealed to the outside world"? How about when information professionals worried about employees freely using the public Internet and all of its (gasp!) "unverified information"?

It's the same debates all over again today with blogs and wikis. On one side of the corporate fence, the legal eagles are worried about secrets being revealed by their employees as they create content on blogs and wikis. And on the other, there's the feeling that so much of the information being created today is just not to be trusted. Corporate nannies want to make certain that their naïve charges don't get into trouble in the big scary world of information.

Well, duh. We're talking about people here. Employees do silly things. They send inappropriate email (and blog posts too) and they believe some of the things on TV news. The debate should be centered around people, not technology. As the examples of previous technology waves should show us, attempting to block the technology isn't the answer. Blogs and wikis, like PCs, the public Internet, and email in previous decades are like chewing gum in your hair—they're easy to get into an enterprise, but impossible to remove without some ill-fated hair pulling.

I spoke at the Gilbane Conference on Content Management Technologies in early December. With a theme of Applying Content Technologies to Enterprise Applications, the Gilbane Conference focused on the broad range of content technologies available for enterprise applications, especially the use and applicability of newer technologies for corporate content applications: blogs, wikis, RSS, and "rich internet" applications. The conference organizers certainly understood that participants wanted to know if blogs and wikis are enterprise-ready, offering terrific sessions to supply answers including a keynote panel: New Technologies You Need to Consider for Content Management Strategies and a keynote debate: Blog, Wiki, and RSS Technology—Are they Enterprise-Ready? Applicable? Or a Passing Tempest in a Teacup?

Most people have probably not seriously considered using these newer technologies in enterprise applications. Yet panelists discussed companies that are using these technologies for collaboration, knowledge management, and publishing. And as we know from the EContent 100, there are innovative vendors marketing products based on these technologies. The panelists spent a good deal of time pointing out what anybody who has used these technologies already knows: that the applications are simple to use. Coach Wei, founder & CTO of Nexaweb, said, "Blog and wiki software is essentially a CMS system which is provided to individuals. Because it is so easy to use, it is gaining traction."

David Berlind, executive editor of ZDNet, admitted that he was a bit reluctant to begin blogging himself when his company launched a series of blogs, but as soon as he got going, he was hooked. Berlind agreed on the ease-of-use side of things, adding, "Blogs and wikis are tricking people into becoming HTML authors." He also pointed out that demographics will force change even if corporate controls are attempted. "Watch out for the new generation of employee who has grown up with IM [software] and MySpace," Berlind said. "When they enter the workplace, things will change." The new ways of information use adopted by the next generation will certainly drive enterprise adoption into the future.

Ross Mayfield, CEO of Socialtext, spoke as part of the debate panel. Mayfield has been racking up a bunch of frequent-flyer miles evangelizing the use of wikis in corporate environments. He certainly agrees with the ease-of-use aspect, which he said allows "amateurs contributing content that was originally only contributed by professionals." His perspective on people circles back to the email debates of years gone by when big brother corporations tried to dole out email accounts only to the worthy. "The hardest part of getting rid of corporate controls is beginning to trust people," Mayfield said.

So will blogs and wikis take off in the enterprise? Based on a reading of the history of technology adoption, of course they will. To suggest they are not is like putting your head in the sand. Frank Gilbane, who moderated the panel debate, pointed out that, based on his company's research, the most popular use of blogs in enterprises is internal. "They are often replacing intranets," he said. So maybe the adoption curve will be similar to corporate email that was first used in enterprises for internal communications. As the chewing gum gets into the corporate hair in internal applications, it will be impossible for it to not be deployed for external use as well.