Avoid obsolesence, embrace Web 2.0: CIOs

Tech-savvy users want wikis, blogs et cetera

Gartner analyst Anthony Bradley foresees "a significant shift in power" within organisations. With free internet applications, web platforms and social software, "the consumer side of the world is driving most technology advancement, not enterprise IT", he says.

That's why IT leaders like Jeff Kuhns are discussing how to balance control with user-inspired innovation. "The companies that figure out how to do this will not only have happier, more productive employees, but the IT department will be free to focus on forward-thinking projects that could help drive revenue and innovation," the senior director of IT at Pennsylvania State University wrote on his blog recently.

The job of maintaining the perception of relevance — and possibly avoiding extinction — may require IT managers to take a close look at their current management styles and make some tweaks, especially if they've been working in IT for a while. "The main issue for CIOs is that they're just plumb unaware [of consumer technology developments] or pretend it's not there," DePaul's Kellen says.

Vince Kellen, CIO at DePaul University, is still a tad tentative about the concept of Enterprise 2.0. "The Web 2.0 phenomenon is just a tiny bit more smoke than fire," he says, because no one has figured out yet the direct relationship between the unstructured data it produces and increased corporate competitiveness.

"Just having more blogs and wikis isn't the answer," he says. "You have to figure out what the organisation is going to learn from this, structure that knowledge and turn it into profit."

And he's trying to prepare for the day that happens. At DePaul, he's formed a team focused on Web 2.0 developments, and he is pressuring vendors to make these technologies more relevant to the corporate market.

At Constellation Energy, the attitude in the CIO's office is not "We can't do it" but "This is interesting; is there applicability?" says Wynne Hayes, the company's CTO.

This kind of open attitude can make increasing your business savvy as important as improving your Web 2.0 fluency. "There are kids coming out of school who can run circles around IT in terms of Web 2.0 technology," Hayes says. "That makes it important to become more business-oriented so that we don't become hindrances to getting business done."

The open attitude has already led Constellation to try out a novel approach to systems development. When the commodities group recently needed a new application developed quickly, it turned to TopCoder, which stages regular coding competitions, ranks developers who compete and then makes this talent available to businesses that need systems built.

The work is broken down into dozens of pieces so that developers work in parallel with one another. When coding is complete, the components are integrated. This speeds the job, which has "tremendous value" for the commodities business group, Hayes says.

Despite such results, few advocate opening the floodgates to a huge change for IT and the business. The world of Web 2.0 is messier than any company is accustomed to. For instance, traditionally, any information that was published — whether internally or externally — was checked and cross-checked and subject to a corporate approval process. With Web 2.0, that type of governance is completely irrelevant, if not destructive to the very purpose of the blog or wiki, Hayes says.

So it's not just a question of whether IT is ready. It's also a matter of communicating to other business leaders the changes these technologies imply, ensuring that they're prepared for the autonomy the technology requires, and planning a phased implementation. Constellation is piloting wikis and blogs in its commodities group and exploring their applicability for engineers and IT.

Patterson agrees that collaborative publishing and social networking tools should not be overly managed by IT. Ian Patterson, CIO at Scottrade, uses web-scanning technology from RSA Security to ensure the accuracy of what gets published on the public internet, but those processes are handled by business people, not IT.

Employees increasingly expect that the technologies they use in their personal lives will follow them everywhere they go -- and that they won't need any help implementing them. Given such expectations, IT professionals are struggling to redefine their roles.

They tend toward three approaches, Yankee Group analyst Josh Holbrook says: seek and destroy (shutting down unapproved applications), acknowledge and ignore (doing nothing to manage the situation), or solicit and support (trying to support all the technologies brought in by users). He suggests a fourth way: enabling the creation of online communities for users to share best practices for managing consumer technology in the workplace.

"IT can be involved in these communities and help shape opinion about which tools are best and how they can be optimally deployed, but it only intervenes when an application poses an unacceptable security risk," Holbrook says.

This enables users to bring in consumer technology but mitigates support headaches. "This is a big change for IT," he says, "because it's a move to a communal method of managing end users."

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