Thursday, May 18, 2006

Software people got there first: Wiki’s, blogs

Web 2.0 is having some fallout in the business world. It isn’t all about AJAX and Google maps, a lot of the other technologies that are broadly seen to be in Web 2.0 are of more general use. Perhaps the one with the most coverage is Blogs but Wikis, RSS, Search and tagging can all be used outside of consumer web-sites.

And I can vouch for this first hand. My employer has been using Wiki’s for a few years, at the moment I’m in the middle of evaluating search engines for the enterprise, today I’ve just set up our internal blogging system and I’m looking at fitting RSS to the website I manage.

I’m actually starting to think that a search engine, deployed in a modern IT enabled knowledge based company, may actually be one of the few example of a technology fix that actually delivers performance improvements right out of the box.

A piece by Andrew McAfee in the last issue of MIT Sloan Management Review entitled Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration sums all this up in the name “SLATES” - Search, Links, Authoring, Tags, Extensions and Signals.

A similar theme argument is made in this piece by Rod Boothby - although Rod seems to think this means the 20 something’s graduating from business school this year will have an advantage over the rest of us.

Both authors echo Tom Davenport who praises wikis in Thinking for a Living although he’s not sure about blogs. Are blogs an effective knowledge management tool? Do they spread ideas? Capture knowledge? Intuitively, from using them I think they do, but how effective are they? There are a lot of pointless blogs out there.

Davenport also suggests a more subtle use of blogs: to manage ones own knowledge. That is, by recording what we do we have our own knowledge available to us. I think this is true, I know I’ve included links and comments in this blog to remind me of things in future. And, as I’ve said before, blogging is a form of diary keeping; that can be useful in its own right, if it sparks some reflection on our part then it is a great advantage.

The thing is, and this continues my theme from the last entry, those who work in software development have had this technology for several years. I can’t remember exactly when I first came across Wiki’s but it was certainly before 2000. People who work in the IT industry both encounter this technology and know how to use it before the majority of other knowledge workers.

In part this is because they aren’t scared by the technology, they can install a wiki, they think nothing of engaging with the computer; in part it is because they have been closer to the people who developed these tools. Sure, I don’t know Ward Cunningham (the inventor of wiki’s) personally but I do know people who do know Ward personally.

But you don’t need Ward to create a wiki. Once the idea was out there many IT people created their own. In fact, when it comes to all these knowledge management tools software developers control the means of production - to use a phrase of Marx.

What does all this mean? Well, I think it means two things.

First researches can learn a lot from looking at IT people, they are early adopters of these technologies. Is there some new technology IT people are using today that could be the next big thing? And what about the practices and process around these tools?

Second, I think this supports my argument that IT people, and software developers in particular, are at the front of new knowledge working techniques.