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Blogs finding fans in business world

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Are Weblogs a legitimate business tool, or merely the Internet's latest vehicle for personal indulgence?

Phillip Windley, CIO for the state of Utah, is among those trying to find out. In June he launched a program that encourages 2,000 IT staffers and about 18,000 other state employees to use Weblogging software for what might be called strategic noodling.

Forum: Are blogs good for business or a waste of time?

For the first 100 state employees who take him up on his offer, the state IT group will pay $40 for a Weblogging product from UserLand called Radio UserLand. So far, the only rule governing what participants write about is a general guideline from Windley that Weblog contributors think carefully about what they want to post on their URLs, which are accessible to anyone for the time being.

"I have hopes [for this project], but I wouldn't say I have great expectations," Windley says. "If everybody just wrote every day [about things such as] 'Here's an interesting problem I had today,' and then we hook up a Google [Web search] appliance, we can create a state knowledgebase."

The Google appliance is a rack-mounted server loaded with the Google software that can be used as the search engine for an enterprise intranet or Web site.

For those who've managed to avoid the hyperbole, Weblogs basically are easy-to-use personal Web sites - no knowledge of HTML is necessary - where "bloggers" post entries on any topic. Readers find Weblogs through search engines, referring links or e-mail tips from friends who share their interests. New readers become referrers, causing posts to be spread around to a group that is continually self-selecting.

Dave Winer, a co-founder of UserLand, which sells Weblogging and content management software, describes Weblogs this way:

"Weblogs are often-updated sites that point to articles elsewhere on the Web, often with comments, and to on-site articles. A Weblog is kind of a continual tour, with a human guide who you get to know. Weblogging enthusiasts say the result is a community created partly around shared information, but more importantly around shared insight. Typically, it becomes a community about which group members care deeply.

That passionate involvement in issues and problem solving is one of the things that attracts executives like Windley to Weblogs. Is it possible that a Web phenomenon that thrives on ad hoc information pooling and referrals can become an enterprise knowledge management system that can boost productivity? Windley's not sure, in part because only a handful of IT staffers have launched their Weblogs.

"I don't know how many people will be interested in it," he says. "I've been kind of forcing it down some people's throats."

Among the early starters is David McNamee, one of the CIO's newly minted product managers, who act as liaison between various IT services and application groups and the state agencies - called clients - that use them. He's convinced that a Weblog can help his clients understand his new role, and learn to take advantage of it to improve their agencies' performance. "I would have no hope of communication with so many different people ... without some kind of asynchronous tool [such as a Weblog]," he says.

Software alone doesn't create a Weblog.

"Getting started is hard, and it takes a certain kind of person who likes to write," Windley says. He finds writing helps him think more clearly, so he adds to the Weblog regularly. But during the first few months, there was little response.

McNamee says such reservations are countered by the personal control that authors have over their logs.

"Blogging creates a sense of ownership," he says. "I have spent only a few hours on my site, but it is mine, and I can do whatever I want with the design or content."

Such posting freedom comes with a need to post responsibly, according to Windley, who wants to see most of these blogs eventually "inside" the state's firewall, available only to state employees.

Windley's blog started getting attention when he wrote an entry about how warchalking (using standard symbols, often chalked onto a curb or side of a building, to identify available wireless access points) could help state employees locate access points. Someone found entry and passed it on to Matt Jones, who's generally credited with coming up with the warchalk idea. Jones in turn posted a reference on his own Web site to Windley's blog, which at once began getting more traffic.

Windley, a former computer science professor and entrepreneur, had tracked the rise of Weblogging for a while when, last spring, he read a column by Internet consultant and former Byte Magazine editor Jon Udell about his own Weblog, based on UserLand's Radio software.

"I'd been looking for a vehicle to communicate my ideas about enterprise IT to my staff and to others," Windley says. The Weblog seemed like an ideal way to post short essays or responses to current issues and have them easily accessed by a "captive audience of 900 employees who have a vested interest in what I think about IT," Windley says with a laugh.

Traditional enterprise collaboration tools, including remote meeting and similar applications, have not proven successful in Windley's experiments.

"They're difficult for people to catch on to, because they're highly structured applications," he says. A pilot project with a remote meeting application worked well for people who were scattered over several sites, but not with workgroups whose members were in nearby offices.

"They couldn't see enough value [in the application] to force them into [using] the tool multiple times a day," he says.

By contrast, an array of Weblogging products make creating and maintaining Weblogs very easy. Webloggers can be alerted to changes in other Weblogs through the Rich Site Summary format, a set of tags for sharing headlines and other Web content with other Web sites. It's widely used, by sites as diverse as CNN, Disney, and Slashdot. Most importantly, the Weblogs create and sustain a community that values the information being shared. The result, Webloggers say, is more like a distillation into collective wisdom instead of the raw data, and even rawer opinions, often appearing in online newsgroups and bulletin boards.

"Weblogging is strange and bizarre, but it works," says Scott Johnson, president of The FuzzyGroup, a consulting firm that specializes in sophisticated Web development, including blogs. A self-confessed "repentant dot-commer," and a latecomer to Weblogging, Johnson says that Weblogs are "highly ad hoc" and ought to be inefficient as tools to capture and spread organizational knowledge. But in practice, the opposite is true.

The classic interactivity tools for the Web, such as discussion groups, Usenet and mailing lists, all break down when large numbers of people show up and use them, he says.

"My blog is technically available to anyone in the world, but I have a hard-core audience of less than 1,000," he says. "Weblogs make one-to-many communications really easy, but also are finely tuned narrow-casters." Johnson returned from Europe and "blogged" a post on how to do international expense reports so you don't lose money on the foreign exchange rate.

"Classically, you create something like this and lock it up, so it's distributed to just 10 people, for example," he says. "But put it in a blog and I expect in a few weeks it will [attract enough readers to warrant] a high Google rating."


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