• United States
by Jennifer Jones

The wild world of wikis, Weblogs, podcasts and RSS

Dec 12, 20058 mins
Collaboration SoftwareEnterprise ApplicationsSmall and Medium Business

A description of wikis, blogs, podcasts and RSS feeds — and some of their uses in communication.

We know from countless reader surveys that IT executives get their technology information from a variety of sources – high-tech print publications and their Web sites, vendor Web sites, trade shows, analyst firms and peers.

But what about these sources of information that seem to have exploded onto the scene – blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and podcasts? Where do they fit into the busy day of an IT executive suffering from information overload? And how reliable is the information? Here’s a guide:

Wiki keys

Wiki (pronounced wee-kee) refers to the collaborative software that allows users to easily create and edit Web page content. Wiki (Hawaiian for quick) also refers to the resulting Web sites. The original wiki is Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia to which anybody can contribute, but the software has spawned countless wiki farms containing links to every imaginable topic.

  • Pros: If you want the definition of a term, or a quick explainer on a particular technology, Wikipedia is great.

  • Cons: The information in a wiki is entered anonymously, and the only check on the accuracy of wiki entries is other anonymous wiki writers with their own agendas and biases.

“The downside of wikis is that anyone can alter them,” warns Rich Diaz, manager of the University of Maryland’s digital imaging group in College Park. In fact, Wikipedia tightened its submission rules last week in response to complaints about inaccuracies.

The blog of war

Blogs can be lively, opinionated, link-filled sites that encourage interactive dialogue between individuals about a variety of topics.

  • Pros: IT executives say blogs can be a good source of technical information and a good way to get feedback about a particular product that you might want to buy, or a specific tech issue or question with which you’re wrestling.

  • Cons: Blogs can be written by disgruntled former employees or people with axes to grind. When evaluating information in a blog, consider the source.

Blogs have other limits. “I do read a lot of blogs, but I just can’t find reliable information on technology-management issues,” says Mayur Raichura, managing director of information services at Long & Foster Real Estate in Fairfax, Va.

He finds blogs useful, however, when they answer a specific technology question. Recently, Raichura and staff read several blogs to decide whether to pursue smart drop-downs to allow Web site visitors to access information on the company’s databases. “There was a nice mixed bag of opinions – some good and some bad. We read these and decided that the technology overall is good but that it is not mature enough for a large set of users,” he says.

Vendors go blog wildFire-breathing blogger seeks editorial restraint

HP has blogs posted by a variety of top executives writing about a wealth of technical topics, including identity management, application manageability and Web services.

“Instead of offering static information, blogs enable a spirited dialogue that can, at its best, cut through the marketing hype and get to the real issues behind the IT ‘hot topics’ of the day,” says Joel Postman, HP director of executive communications. “If, for example, a software industry executive blogs that ‘service-oriented architectures are just another way of saying Web services,’ this will spark a heated debate, bringing the smartest and most-engaged people into the conversation.”

Microsoft executives are also doing a fair share of blogging as a means of interacting with users. “In my case, I can easily share answers with entire audiences to questions I’ve been asked during presentations that I wasn’t able to answer on that day,” says Matthew Stephen, IT pro evangelist of the company’s Development and Platform Group in the United Kingdom.

Many users do seem willing to spend at least some time scrolling through a corporate executive’s blog. “Well, we do rely on the technology these vendors create, so in some sense we are at their mercy,” says Brian Tegtmeyer, director of CenCom E911 Public Safety Communications Center in Round Lake Beach, Ill. “These blogs contain no more or less slant than a corporate Web page.”

Gartner analyst Allen Weiner agrees. “Corporate blogs can be a great source of information, as long as you put on your filter when you are reading them.”

Whether generated by corporate executives or experts – self-appointed or otherwise – information contained in technical blogs should be considered with caution. “In the strictest sense, blogs aren’t a reliable source of pure technical information. They are, however, a source of candid discussion on technical issues,” HP’s Postman says.

In terms of credibility, there are other signs to look for. Key is whether a blog yields a response and whether it’s updated frequently.

“About three months back, I found a blog someone had written about their internal struggle with Java and .Net. It was on management and software development – the struggles and everything that was going on. It was a fascinating read. And I was hoping for more,” he recalls. “But it never got changed – for a month or maybe more.”

Be the blogger

A small but growing number of IT executives are becoming bloggers. Tegtmeyer uses blogging software from Imeem of Palo Alto to create his own internal blogs, which he uses to foster dialogue on IT projects and the center’s mission.

“My blog was and is intended as a new communication medium for our internal IT staff,” says Chris Jones, director of special projects and e-learning technology at the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.

However, when Jones blogged recently about best practices for IT Infrastructure Library initiatives, he received helpful, outside comment. “The contacts came from other higher-education organizations – some vendors, some people with experience in related fields,” he says. “All were interested in what we were doing and were hoping to be part of a larger discussion on the topics.”

It will take such proactive measures on the part of IT leaders to broaden blogs, Gartner analyst Weiner says. But so far the IT manager who blogs remains a rarity. “We’ve seen some cases – though they are not prevalent – of a CIO chronicling in a blog the details of a project implementation. This kind of information allows others to gain real understanding.”

“But it takes an extremely visionary CIO to be doing that today,” Weiner adds. Along with vision, blogging takes time – a precious commodity for the IT executive, who must further worry over the internal politics of revealing project strategies and details to the world. “Security can be another paramount issue for the CIO who plans to write a diary of an implementation.”

RSS feeds: Push comes to shove

Most often powered by a format Netscape developed in 1999, RSS feeds gather updates to blogs or news posted on specified Web sites.

  • Pros: Easy way to get information sent to you.

  • Cons: Can contribute to information overload.

“It keeps me halfway up-to-date on topics I should know about,” Raichura says.

Jones adds, “I am an Apple Macintosh guy, so I use the new Safari browser that ships with every Mac and has an RSS reader built in, but I’ve also used FeedReader on the PC side.

Ego to go

Podcasts are a method of preparing audio files – for example, lectures on IT-specific topics – that can be played back on portable digital music or multimedia players, including iPods.

  • Pros: Gives you information you can listen to while mobile.

  • Cons: The quality of information might not be worth your time.

With podcasts, it’s all about the topic, Weiner says. “Podcasts can have value if they center on people sharing personal stories about products they’ve used or issues they’ve had,” he says. “Anything that involves tips, hints or tricks. But if it’s just rambling commentary, it’s nothing more than hubris.”

Jones says, “The easiest way to find podcasts is not from a Web page per se but from one of the podcast directories built into many podcast tools like iPodder. The newest and maybe most powerful entrant is the release of Apple’s new iTunes, which has a podcast directory built in.”

Jones says knowledge workers have emerging tools to help them find, assess, implement and evaluate the content and ideas they need to be more effective. But they must be cautious and ever more discerning to avoid information overload – or just bad information.”

Jones is a freelance writer in Vienna, Va. She can be reached at