Expo looks at workplace use of Web 2.0

D. Mark Hornung is attending this week's Web 2.0 Expo because he doesn't want to get hit by a tsunami.

A senior vice president at employment marketer Bernard Hodes Group, Hornung sees a tidal wave of blogs, wikis, social networks, virtual worlds and other Web 2.0 applications approaching his industry. Along the way, these technologies are re-shaping employment marketing in fundamental ways that are more disruptive than the shift from print to online media, he said.

Prior to the Web 2.0 revolution of online communities and user-generated content, employers could still control their brand and their corporate message via their sites, online ads and e-mail communications. Not anymore, according to Hornung, whose company helps clients promote their employment opportunities.

"Now you have the universe of prospective employees talking and connecting with each other, and that creates a whole new dynamic because now the employer doesn't control the message," Hornung said. "It's much more difficult to maintain a consistent brand image because you have people defiling it on the one hand and overly building it on the other. It's a fundamental shift."

"The message I'm taking to my clients is that you can no longer control the message, you can only influence it," he added.

Hornung will be one of about 8,500 attendees at the San Francisco event, which is geared at business and IT managers, senior executives, developers, marketers and entrepreneurs. Like him, many attendees will be interested in learning how Web 2.0 technologies are infiltrating workplaces.

Indeed, how to take advantage of Web 2.0 has become an increasingly loud and common conversation within companies. A recent Forrester Research survey found that Web 2.0 adoption is a priority at 56 percent of North American and European enterprises this year.

"It's safe to say that at just about any enterprise, somebody is thinking about Web 2.0 tools. It may not be the CIO, CEO or CMO, but someone is looking at these tools and to see if they can be used to solve long-standing business problems, and in many cases they can," said Oliver Young, a Forrester analyst.

While the opportunity that Web 2.0 offers for improved communication and collaboration with employees, partners and customers is clear in general, each organization must figure out its approach to choosing and implementing these tools, Young said. "The biggest question is: How do we use them properly?"

Young recommends that companies identify the business problem they expect to address and then determine the desired changes. Once that's done, companies must draft a strategy for triggering the change. Only then should decision makers begin considering what Web 2.0 technology to employ.

"That sounds like a no-brainer but so many companies start with technology and say: 'Well, we're going to bring in a wiki and then we'll figure out what we're going to use it for.' Doing it that way is a sure-fire recipe for disaster," Young said.

Another good idea is to start small by identifying a specific problem involving a discreet set of users. This lets the company test the system and reduce its investment risk, he said. "That makes it much easier to experiment and to iterate to find right formula for your company."

After all, Web 2.0 wares lend themselves to this type of test, because they are generally very inexpensive when compared with conventional enterprise software. A Forrester study released this week found that globally enterprises will spend only $4.6 billion by 2013 in Web 2.0 products, a small fraction of the overall software market. "While Web 2.0's impact will be very high, and make the enterprise fundamentally different technologically, the money associated with enterprise Web 2.0 spending is going to be relatively small," Young said.

IDC analyst Rachel Happe sees Web 2.0 tools, and in particular social networking applications, impacting broadly the workplace, including marketing, human resources and product management and development. "It has wide applicability because people are finding all these work processes that it helps with," Happe said.

But for these tools to succeed in a particular organization, decision makers need to first have a thorough understanding of the environment in which they will be implemented, she said. The end users -- whether employees or customers -- need to see clear value from collaborating and communicating about a topic they care deeply about. This is key for Web 2.0 applications, whose value is directly proportional to the amount of workgroup or community participation they generate.

"You have to create content, seed that community and spend a lot of time facilitating and engaging with the people you're trying to pull into that community," she said. "Creating a robust community is no small feat and has very little to do with the tools."

Ultimately, the rewards for the business can be significant, because social networking applications with embedded wikis, blogs and message boards, can capture conversations that employees or customers are already having, but in an online platform that allows others to participate and benefit from them, Happe said. "If you can do it successfully, you can get a whole amount of value out of it," she said.

Companies must also approach Web 2.0 with the right mentality, meaning that, if their executives begin to blog, they must be truly interested in obtaining feedback from readers, said industry analyst Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence. "Sincerity and honesty are at the core of this," he said.

At Bernard Hodes Group, Hornung started a wiki several months ago and it is getting good traction, including participation from colleagues in offices outside of the U.S., he said. "There are so many things happening so quickly, that no one person or even one group of people can really hope to stay on top of it. But if all of our eyes and ears around the world can contribute [via the wiki], it would be a really cool thing," he said.

Hornung, who has been involved with Web initiatives for about 15 years, was at first perplexed by the microblogging service Twitter, but after he got the hang of it, it has paid off at work. "There's one client in particular that I started following him and he started following me [on Twitter] and it really helped us get some business done," he said.

One of his company's clients has begun allowing its hiring managers to engage in text chats via its Web site with prospective employees seeking more information about open positions. "Five years ago, this was unthinkable. You had to go through the gauntlet of HR before you got to talk to a hiring manager," he said. "It's a new world out there."

Hornung recommends that business managers and executives, especially those like him from the Baby Boomer generation, try out Web 2.0 tools, even if at first they make mistakes using them and the ROI isn't clear. "If you sit on the sidelines and say 'If I can't see an ROI I'm not going to do it,' the tsunami is going to hit you. By the time you see it coming, it will be too late," he said.

Web 2.0 Expo, which runs through Friday at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, will feature almost 150 sessions and more than 150 exhibitors. Keynote speakers include Ning co-founder and Web luminary Marc Andreessen, Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, Mozilla Foundation Chairman Mitchell Baker and Yahoo CTO Ari Balogh. Exhibitors include Adobe, Microsoft, Amazon.com, AOL, Disney, EMC, Google, IBM, Intel, Nokia, Oracle, Salesforce.com, Sun and Yahoo.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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