CIOs look beyond Web 2.0

At MIT symposium CIOs examine the growing role of Web 2.0 in the corporate environment

Panelists chewing over the role of Web 2.0 in the enterprise, at MIT’s annual CIO Symposium, said it’s already a thing of the past. What’s happening now is being built atop the early Web 2.0 technologies.

"Web 2.0 is a thing of the past."

That was the judgment of Maria Pardee, president of global integration for BT Design, the IT design and delivery arm of British Telecommunications (BT), speaking at the fifth annual MIT CIO Symposium this week.

She wasn't just being provocative: Her colleagues on the panel pretty much agreed with her. "The future is about how to exchange data, and have trusted relationships, with people outside the enterprise," she said.

The MIT panel was organized to wrestle with the emergence of a basket of very diverse technologies, all grouped under the “Web 2.0” label, and their corporate potential.

The technologies range from Web services and standards like XML, and service-oriented architectures (SOA), to wikis and RSS feeds, to new forms of collaboration and social networking, and even to new infrastructures to support all this, such as cloud computing and virtualization. One analyst firm estimated these technologies will be a $4.6 billion market in 2013.

For Pardee and her colleagues on the panel, many of these technologies have already become an essential part of the corporate IT landscape. The explosion of social networking and its implications for organization and business processes, such as customers and supplier relationships is evidence that the original Web 2.0 has already begun to foster new ways of doing business.

The power of sharing

“Web 2.0 [today] is about applications and systems that can talk with each other and collaborate,” says Richard Mickool, executive director and CTO for Northeastern University’s information services group. “The real power is around sharing information [dynamically and automatically] and building upon it.”

That sharing and building will now take place at a higher level of abstraction, according to Mike Willis, a consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers, and founding chairman of XBRL International, which is fostering adoption of the eXtensible Business Reporting Language, a Web 2.0 format standard to simplify the reporting of business financial data .

With XRBL, Willis said, analysts of capital markets now have the potential to do much more than access and share raw data. Instead, they can share the mathematical financial models that work with the data, elaborating and iterating those models to improve them. “Web 2.0 standardization is now around higher level IP [intellectual property],” Willis said.

James Lin, CIO for Forbes, gave an example of this shift. As is typical for online news sites, Forbes lets readers comment on stories, and now features the comments on the home page, along with different rankings of news and content, by users and Forbes editors. But Forbes has taken user content a step further. It features a members-only community of stock pickers. Members, who are investors, can make stock recommendations, along with separate picks by Forbes editors, inviting discussion by other members. Then, the performance of the stocks, and of the members recommending them, is tracked and ranked.

Lin predicted that personalization of content will generate greater demand for personalization tools – capabilities that let Web users filter, aggregate and format data that needs their specific interests, schedules and even locations.

The geek factor?

Perhaps all these technologies are only accessible to the enthusiasts, the geeks, suggested the panel moderator, Andrew McAfee, associate professor of business administration, Harvard Business School. “XML is not a technology for the masses,” he said.

But in a sense it is, countered Willis. “Technologies like XBRL are embedded in something else, like [an] Excel [spreadsheet],” he said. “The financial analysts are just using Excel.”

Mickool said that embedded quality poses a special challenge for the enterprise. “We need to employ these technologies because our users are buying devices and software that already have them, and they expect to be able to operate on our infrastructure,” he said.

Look good naked

Mckool said that organizations need to realize that what McAfee describes is introducing a new kind of transparency to organizations and is becoming an attribute of the Web. “We need and want this kind of feedback,” he said.

Willis shared a favorite quote related to McAfee’s point, from author Don Tapscott and David Ticol in their book The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency will Revolutionize Business. “If you’re going to be naked, you better be buff,” Willis said. The Web introduces transparency into the processes of creating, sharing and interpreting information. The days of a special class of experts controlling a one-way flow of information are over, he suggested.

Forbes’ Lin argued that experts, such as editors, are still needed. “But their role is different,” he said. He outlined a role that is more collaborative, more communal and more iterative. The Forbes Website has tools for allowing self-proclaimed experts to rate and comment on stocks. But other tools track the stock’s performance over time, and rate the effectiveness of the stock pickers, and Forbes editor participate in all of these. “Experts need to operate at a higher level,” Lin said.

McAfee noted that such changes were blurring the boundaries within enterprises, and between enterprises and groups such as customers and suppliers or regulators. “Don’t we want or need these boundaries?” he asked.

BT’s Pardee said this weakening of boundaries in BT’s case paradoxically means that customers put greater trust in, and demand higher performance from, the telecom giant to provide reliable and secure networks. And it creates new business opportunities. “Access [to the network] is becoming a commodity for BT,” she said. “The innovation and value we add lie in the software layers on top of that.”

“Most organizations don’t know where their boundaries are,” added Willis. If you receive some set of data, do you know where it came from, what product it’s associated with, how current it is, whether or to what degree it’s accurate? Web 2.0 standards and technologies can address these issues even as traditional boundaries shift, he suggested.

Questioners pointed to problems still to be addressed, ranging from wikis that develop feudal or gang mentalities that actually stifle communication and sharing, to maintaining data quality and service level standards in fluid SOA environments that rely on third-party or external software components.

“It’s not easy to implement Web 2.0,” cautioned Forbes’ Lin. “It’s not a panacea for business problems.”

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