Silicon Valley loves its buzzwords, and there's none more popular today than Web 2.0. Unless you're a diehard techie, though, good luck figuring out what it means. Web 2.0 technologies bear strange names like wikis, blogs, RSS, AJAX, and mashups. And the startups hawking them -- Renkoo, Gahbunga, Ning, Squidoo -- sound like Star Wars characters George Lucas left on the cutting-room floor.
But behind the peculiarities, Web 2.0 portends a real sea change on the Internet. If there's one thing they have in common, it's what they're not. Web 2.0 sites are not online places to visit so much as services to get something done -- usually with other people. From Yahoo!'s (YHOO) photo-sharing site Flickr and the group-edited online reference source Wikipedia to the teen hangout MySpace, and even search giant Google (GOOG), they all virtually demand active participation and social interaction (see BW Online, 9/26/05, "It's A Whole New Web"). If these Web 2.0 folks weren't so geeky, they might call it the Live Web.
And though these Web 2.0 services have succeeded in luring millions of consumers to their shores, they haven't had much to offer the vast world of business. Until now. Slowly but surely they're scaling corporate walls. "All these things that are thought to be consumer services are coming into the enterprise," says Ray Lane, former Oracle (ORCL) president and now a general partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers (see BW Online, 6/5/06, "A VC's View of Web 2.0").
CORPORATE BLOGGERS. For all its appeal to the young and the wired, Web 2.0 may end up making its greatest impact in business. And that could usher in more changes in corporations, already in the throes of such tech-driven transformations as globalization and outsourcing. Indeed, what some are calling Enterprise 2.0 could flatten a raft of organizational boundaries -- between managers and employees and between the company and its partners and customers. Says Don Tapscott, CEO of the Toronto tech think tank New Paradigm and co-author of The Naked Corporation: "It's the biggest change in the organization of the corporation in a century."
Early signs of the shift abound. Walt Disney (DIS), investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, and scores of other companies use wikis, or group-editable Web pages, to turbo-charge collaboration. Other firms are using button-down social-networking services such as LinkedIn and Visible Path to dig up sales leads and hiring prospects from the collective contacts of colleagues. Corporate blogging is becoming nearly a cliché, as executives from Sun Microsystems (SUNW) chief executive Jonathan Schwartz to General Motors (GM) Vice-Chairman Bob Lutz post on their own blogs to communicate directly with customers.
Just as the personal computer sneaked its way into companies through the back door, so it's going with Web 2.0 services. When Rod Smith, IBM's (IBM) vice-president for emerging Internet technologies, told the information technology chief at Royal Bank of Scotland about wikis last year, the exec shook his head and said the bank didn't use them. But when Smith looked at the other participants in the meeting, 30 of them were nodding their heads. They use wikis indeed. "Enterprises have been ringing our phones off the hook to ask us about Web 2.0," says Smith.
ONE GIANT COMPUTER. Also just like the PC, Web 2.0's essential appeal is empowerment. Increasing computer power, nearly ubiquitous high-speed Internet connections, and ever-easier Web 2.0 services give users unprecedented power to do it themselves. It doesn't hurt that many of these services are free, supported by ads, or at their most expensive still cost less than cable. "All the powerful trends in technology have been do-it-yourself," notes Joe Kraus, CEO of wiki supplier JotSpot.
In essence, these services are coalescing into one giant computer that almost anyone can use, from anywhere in the world. When you do a Google search, for instance, you're actually setting in motion an array of programs and databases distributed around the globe on computer hard drives. Not only that, people who tap services such as MySpace, eBay (EBAY), and the Internet phone service Skype actually are improving the tools by the very act of using them. MySpace, for instance, becomes more useful with each new contact or piece of content added.
The collective actions, contacts, and talent of people using services such as MySpace, eBay, and Skype essentially improve those services constantly (see BW Online, 6/20/05, "The Power Of Us"). "We're shifting from a presentation medium to a programming platform," says Tapscott. "Every time we go on these sites, we're programming the Web."
PROBLEM SOLVING. Not surprisingly, a lot of executives remain skeptical. For some, it's hard to imagine the same technology that spawns a racy MySpace page also yielding a new corporate collaboration service. "There's a big cultural difference between the Web 2.0 people and the IT department," notes consultant John Hagel, author of several books on technology and business. More than that, information technology managers naturally don't want people using these services willy-nilly, because they're often not secure from hackers or rivals.
Nonetheless, the notions behind Web 2.0 clearly hold great potential for businesses -- and peril for those that ignore them. Potentially, these Web 2.0 services could help solve some vexing problems for corporations that current software and online services have yet to tackle.
For one, companies are struggling to overcome problems with current online communications, whether it's e-mail spam or the costs of maintaining company intranets that few employees use. So they're now starting to experiment with a growing array of collaborative services, such as wikis. Says Ross Mayfield, CEO of the corporate wiki firm Socialtext: "Now, most everybody I talk to knows what Wikipedia is -- and it's not a stretch for them to imagine a company Wikipedia."
MORE FLEXIBLE. And not just imagine -- Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, for instance, uses a Socialtext wiki instead of e-mail to create meeting agendas and post training videos for new hires. Six months after launching it, traffic on the 2,000-page wiki, used by a quarter of the bank's workforce, already has surpassed that of the company's intranet (see BW Online, 11/24/05, "E-Mail Is So Five Minutes Ago").
Corporations also are balking at installing big, multimillion dollar software programs that can take years to roll out -- and then aren't flexible enough to adapt to new business needs. "They're clunky and awkward and don't encourage participation," grumbles Dion Hinchcliffe, chief technology officer of Washington, D.C. tech consultant Sphere of Influence.
That's why companies are warming to the idea of opening their information-technology systems to do-it-yourselfers. And they spy an intriguing way to do that with what are known as mash-ups, or combinations of simple Web 2.0 services with each other into a new service (see BW Online, 7/25/05, "Mix, Match, and Mutate").
The big advantage: They can be done very quickly with existing Web services.
BUSINESS NETWORKS. IBM, for instance, last year helped the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Center for Corporate Citizenship mash together a one-stop shop for people displaced by Hurricane Katrina to find jobs. People type into one box the kind of job they're seeking, and the site searches more than 1,000 job boards, then shows their location on a Google Map. "This [mashups] could be a way to provide solutions to customers within hours instead of months," says IBM's Smith.
Companies are starting to take a page from MySpace, Facebook, and other social-networking services. The reason: As appealing as that social aspect is for teens and anyone else who wants to stay in closer touch with friends, it's even more useful in business. After all, businesses in one sense are social networks formed to make or sell something.
So it's no surprise that corporate-oriented social networks are gaining a toehold. LinkedIn, an online service for people to post career profiles and find prospective employees, is the recruiting tool of choice for a number of companies. "In 2003, people thought of us as a weird form of social networking," notes LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman. "Now, people are saying, 'Oh, I get it, it's a business tool.'" (see BW Online, 4/10/06, "How LinkedIn Broke Through").
STAYING YOUNG. Despite all the activity so far, it's still early days for this phenomenon some techies (who can't help themselves) call Enterprise 2.0. For now, the key challenge for executives is learning about the vast array of Web 2.0 services. And that requires more than simply checking in with the premier Web 2.0 blog, TechCrunch (see BW Online, 6/2/06, "Tip Sheet: Harnessing Web 2.0").
Where to start? Watch what kids are doing. If they use e-mail at all, it's a distant fourth to instant messaging, personal blogs, and the social networking sites, because they're much easier to use for what matters to them: staying in touch with friends. Companies need to provide more compelling ways for this highly connected bunch as they move into the workforce, bringing their valuable contacts in tow. "Young people are not going to go to companies where they can't use these new tools," says Lane. "They'll say, 'Why would I want to work here?'"
It's also critical for executives to try out these services themselves: Create a MySpace page. Open a Flickr account and upload a few photos. Write a Wikipedia entry. Create a mashup at Ning.com. "The essence of Web 2.0 is experimentation, so they should try things out," says venture capitalist Peter Rip of Leapfrog Ventures, an investor in several Web 2.0 startups.
FREE P.R. Then there's blogging. It's worthwhile to spend considerable time reading some popular blogs, which you can find at Technorati.com, to get a feel for how online conversation works. Only then should execs try their hand at blogging -- and perhaps first inside their companies before going public. Thick skin is a requirement, since the "blogosphere" can be brutal on anything that sounds like spin.
But the payoff can be substantial, if hard to quantify. Genial Microsoft (MSFT) blogger Robert Scoble, for instance, is credited by many Redmond watchers with doing more to improve the company's image than millions of dollars in public relations. In no small part that's because he has shown a willingness to criticize his company at times.
And companies should to provide open forums for their customers to express themselves. That can mean critical, even vicious comments. One Boeing (BA) exec who started a blog, for instance, was told early on: "Take down your blog. You embarrass us (see BW Online, 5/22/06, "Into The Wild Blog Yonder")."
NEW MANAGEMENT. But the upside can be a brand to which people feel a stronger emotional tie. Says Forrester Research analyst Chris Charron: "In the end, the brand is owned not just by the people who create it, but by the people who use it."
All that's going to require more than slick technology. Executives, long used to ruling from the top of the corporate hierarchy, will have to learn a new skill: humility. "Companies that are extremely hierarchical have trouble adapting," says Tim O'Reilly, CEO of tech book publisher O'Reilly Media, which runs the annual Web 2.0 Conference "They'll be outperformed by companies that don't work that way." Ultimately, taking full advantage of Web 2.0 may require -- get ready -- Management 2.0.