Welcome to the World of Web 2.0

You know the drill: You call tech support about a computer problem, you’re immediately put on hold, and then you wait for anywhere between five minutes and forever before talking to a real person. You’re asked to describe the problem, then you’re put on hold again while the support person searches the company’s internal difficult-to-search knowledgebase for a solution. Or your problem may involve a new product and the knowledgebase might not have been updated. Maybe your problem can be solved over the phone, maybe not. But almost certainly, you’ll have lost lots of time waiting to find out.

At least one major computer software manufacturer has successfully tackled the problem using a Web 2.0 technology — a wiki — to drastically improve its customer support. “They added our wiki application to their traditional knowledgebase,” says Jeff Brainard, the director of marketing at Socialtext, which is located in Palo Alto, Calif. Soon the number of customer service representatives using Socialtext’s wiki to share problems and solutions not found in the knowledgebase skyrocketed. According to Brainard, more than 4,000 service representatives now use the wiki.

“There’s a tangible benefit,” says Brainard. “They get through calls more quickly. What used to take 15 clicks to solve now takes five. Their managers look better. The company estimates it’s saving at least a million dollars a year, and maybe as much as $10 million.”

The Promise of Web 2.0

Although “Web 2.0” is sometimes dismissed as being a term that’s both trendy and vague, the six sources we spoke to, ranging from corporate consumers of Web 2.0 products to consultants to vendors, were able to define the difference between traditional Web applications and Web 2.0 applications. The traditional Web was about setting common standards — TCP/IP, HTTP and FTP, for example — for the use of e-mail and for Web browsers. It was about e-mail and websites. Web 2.0 is about building communities through user-generated content and enabling use through not just the PC but a variety of devices, such as cell phones, PDAs and kiosks. It’s about personalization, multiple forms of content (audio, video, text, messaging) and customizable tools. The differences are visible, radical and useful.

According to a 2006 report by Forrester, wikis — documents that can be created, added to and edited by anyone in a defined community — have become one of the most popular Web 2.0 solutions in the enterprise. Blogs have also been embraced, as have instant messaging, forums, RSS feeds and Facebook-style profile pages for employees. Increasingly, business users who may have surreptitiously been using open-source wikis or who have been instant-messaging under the corporate radar are finding that their companies are now providing them with similar tools. The main difference is that the corporate Web 2.0 tools are usually more robust, more secure and more tightly controlled than the similar offerings available to consumers. And CIOs, according to another recent Forrester survey, aren’t interested in picking and choosing their Web 2.0 tools one by one. Sixty-one percent of the 119 CIOs surveyed said, according to Forrester, that they want their Web 2.0 tools “as a suite. . .[from] a large, incumbent vendor.”

In the Web 2.0 world, “large” and “incumbent” don’t automatically mean traditional corporate vendors, such as Microsoft, SAP and IBM. Socialtext has only been around for five years, but 2,000 organizations already use its package, which integrates RSS feeds, blogging, discussion forums and other common Web 2.0 tools with its wiki platform. Awareness, known as iUpload until July 2007, is barely eight years old, but its Headcovers Unlimited suite leads the pack of enterprise blogging platforms, according to Forrester.

Pitfalls Still Lurk

While vendors can provide SaaS (software as a service, or remotely hosted applications), Web 2.0 suites still face stumbling blocks:

  • The generation gap “People who are over 40 have a harder time adapting to this than younger people,” says Sam Aparicio, vice president of products and strategy for the Angel website, a call-center application provider in McLean, Va. Richard Lyons of Chicago-based Lyons Consulting advises using incentives, like contests, games and good old-fashioned recognition, to encourage hesitant new users to participate. Socialtext made wiki and blog content accessible to e-mail users and also enabled employees to publish to wikis and blogs via e-mail to ease adoption.
  • Security Web 2.0 is suited to SaaS delivery because new tools are being developed so quickly and are “mashed up” so easily. But large companies often hesitate to use vendors who provide SaaS solutions because they want to protect their data. When insurance giant Northwestern Mutual raised questions, Headcovers Unlimited was able to demonstrate that their data could be segregated and also protected through Northwestern’s already-existing single sign-on system. Socialtext addresses similar security concerns, in part, by offering a dedicated appliance that companies can use on-site.
  • Ease of use Many open source wikis, such as Wikipedia, require contributors to master a wiki “syntax” — a markup language — which is a significant barrier to participation, especially among workers used to productivity suites like Microsoft Office and single-user project management software. Socialtext focuses on making its software work with existing software

and services, and has also eliminated coding from its wiki. Both Socialtext and Awareness integrate their tools into a company’s Intranet home page, so they are ¬†always visible — and hopefully inviting — to employees.

  • Measurement Deploying enterprise-wide Web 2.0 tools can cost both time and money. Both vendors and customers should discuss how the success (or failure) of these tools can be measured. Is it a reduction in call times and clicks for phone support representatives? Something more intangible, like widespread participation? To ensure mutual satisfaction, define what success would look like before and during the process.
  • Picking the right use “Wikis aren’t a solution for every problem in the world,” warns Brainard. Nor are blogs, RSS feeds or any single Web 2.0 tool. Business users can’t expect to — and shouldn’t be encouraged to — embrace Web 2.0 tools when more traditional software packages do the job just fine. It may be tempting to hype the shiny new wiki, especially after a large investment has been made, but companies would be wise to roll Web 2.0 applications out slowly. Recruit and encourage enthusiastic early adopters to create a base that can self-seed an organic expansion, with the tools already in place and available for use.

Web 2.0 Is Here to Stay

With Web 2.0 still a toddler, rapid change in this market segment will be a constant in the years to come. But the advantages are immediately clear. Web 2.0 marks a clear turning point in the way companies manage, organize and, perhaps most important, retain information. If nothing else, user-generated shared content has a hidden advantage that’s rarely, if ever, discussed. “It’s a way to keep information in-house after an employee goes out the door,” says Lyons. “It’s no longer locked up in their e-mail.”