Expert Voice: John Patrick on Weblogs
Blogging gives new life to the concept of knowledge management. Read ex-IBM Internet strategist John Patrick’s take on this Web-phenomenon in an interview with CIO Insight Executive Editor Marcia Stepanek.
By Marcia Stepanek – CIO Insight
Web logs—or blogs as they are sometimes called—are Web pages filled with the thoughts and musings of people with opinions to share, no matter how useless or useful they may be. Some blogs have become mainstream and are highly valued by their readers, such as johnpatrick.com, ex-IBM Internet strategist John Patrick’s daily take on life and technology and its impact on business and society. Technorati, a California-based Internet research think tank, estimates that there are 750,000 blogs and counting—with many of them arising among employees inside corporations.
Among the more significant aspects of blogging, MIT researchers say, is it represents a new genre of communication that offers people alternate filters to mainstream news of events, written instantly by sources they respect on subjects they need to know more about. And sometimes, a blog is a tool for building community: As the Howard Dean presidential campaign is showing, a blog can be an effective way to organize behind a cause or event. Powerful search engines make blog postings accessible to a worldwide audience, and blogs—always on—are continuously updated by those who write them, via “blogware” that’s recently become available.
So it’s inevitable, perhaps, that businesses are going to be affected by this new Internet medium. Indeed, at some corporations, blogs are already being created and shared, many under the radar of top corporate managers. Their promise, says Patrick: to tap into expertise among far-flung locations and enable information-sharing with partners, suppliers and customers about everything from business problems to new-product musings. “Knowledge management wasn’t overhyped,” says Patrick, in an interview with CIO Insight Executive Editor Marcia Stepanek. “It was underdelivered. Blogs can potentially deliver the grassroots discussions and knowledge-sharing that top-down, corporate-sponsored efforts never could.”
CIO Insight: Bloggers reframe the news for different audiences and ensure that new voices have a chance to be heard. What’s your take on the significance of weblogs, both to society and to business?
John Patrick: I think this blog phenomenon is one of those things that comes along every decade or so and gets completely underestimated by just about everybody. It’s very much like what’s going on with Wi-Fi now, and very much what happened with the Web ten years ago. Blogs are a whole new Internet channel, yet another example of how the Internet has made it possible for new ideas to come along and change the status quo. I think a lot of times people see something come along and they say, “What’s the big deal? We had that in 1972,”—like knowledge management or artificial intelligence. When instant messaging started, a lot of people said, “oh, this is no biggie. We had this on the mainframe in the 1960s.” It’s true—we did. But what makes IM different is that now we have the Internet—the widespread sharing of information. That allows for collaboration, it allows for a global effort. So it spawns many more ideas, it allows a new thought to take off like wildfire.
I like to think of blogging as a new way to communicate. And there are many ways to think about this. Some people like to say this enables everybody to be a publisher. In fact, a lot of people said that about the Web back in 1994 and 1995—that it’s a document-publishing phenomenon and that now, everybody can publish. In theory, that was true—but only if you knew HTML and if you knew how to set up a Web server and a lot of other ifs. What’s new with blogging is that anybody can do it.
Why is this a big deal for business?
There is no question in my mind that blogging is already beginning to reshape how information is created, published and shared. Blogs have the power to introduce new voices into the mix, which will enrich the quality of information available. Voices not necessarily heard before, thanks to limitations of money, access or hierarchy—you’re not the CEO, you’re just a guy with a big idea—now you can bridge those gaps. Say you’re a CIO who wants to develop some thought leadership around the need to rethink the company’s approach to mobile workforce strategies. Blogs can give you access to the grassroots and to your peers that you might not otherwise have had.
In the mid-1990s, some businesses embraced the Internet quickly while others waited to see where it would lead. Some, like the music industry, still seem to be waiting. Blogging is at that same early stage. Some will embrace it and others will wait and some will wait too long. There are millions of people who are experts at certain things, have a point of view and are good communicators. They are not journalists in the traditional sense, but they will create large amounts of information that will be syndicated around the world. People will no longer just do a Google search to find information on a topic. Instead, they will search the blogsphere to find out what those in the know are currently thinking and writing on a topic.
Right now, there’s an immediate negative reaction to blogs by CIOs because they’re viewed as simply adding more to the in-box.
Your own blog entry for June 20, 2003, entitled “Time for Blogging?,” says you met with some CIOs and they were all familiar with Wi-Fi but not one had heard of blogging.
It’s not surprising. They’re all getting budget pressure. They’ve got huge security issues. They’ve got skills issues. And they’ve got strategic pressures from the lines of business and the CEOs pushing them to do more with less. So they don’t have time to keep up with what’s going on outside, much less to consider the implications.
So you’re saying that blogging is one way to help them do more with less?
Yeah, exactly right—in the IT department and across the whole company. It is true for the CIO. It’s also true for everybody who works for the CIO. Go all the way down to the developers, and they’re in the same boat. They don’t have enough time to do what they’re being asked to do, and they don’t always have the answers to the questions they need to solve the problem they’re working on.
One technical guy at IBM whom I’ve known for many years, a distinguished engineer, told me that blogs are now his No. 1 source of technical information. That was about a year ago that he told me that, and I was taken aback. That’s a pretty profound statement. If you’re a CIO, you can look at blogging as a disruptive pain in the neck that’s just for kids or egomaniacs who want to write about their hobbies. Or you can say, wait a minute, this is a new channel and a new form of communication that can improve productivity within IT and across the whole company and we should be very open-minded in the way we look at this. I’m sure every CIO would agree that IM has become a key channel of communication in the corporation and has reduced phone calls and has allowed people to get answers to their questions immediately and move on to the next thing.
There’s no question that IM has increased the productivity of every company that’s using it. I believe blogging will be the same way. And I suspect that blogging is already happening, in most major companies today, even though the CIO may not have ever heard of it. Run a search across the intranet and look for XML blog files. You’ll find them.
Today, employees have their intranets, but the intranet is the data dumpster. Everything is there but you can’t find what you want. Much of the content is old and no longer relevant. What employees want is a current view on a topic. They want to find what the experts are thinking so they can leverage that experience. Corporate blogs will become the source. Companies will also use blogging to share their news and views with their customers and suppliers. IBM already has nearly 100 blog feeds of ibm.com news unique to countries around the world. IBM is embracing blogging in various ways, including participating in the development and evolution of the standards for blogging to ensure that it can continue to flourish for all.
Why should CIOs see this as part of their management strategy?
The goal is to improve the leveraging of the expertise within the department and across the corporation. If a company has 10,000 people, and if they can be only 1 percent more effective, that’s 100 people. And that’s a lot of money. It’s a productivity play.
You could call it knowledge management, but that’s sort of a hackneyed term, and a lot of people, as soon as they hear KM, they immediately tune out. Actually, I think KM is going to come back again. It never left, it really is important. It’s just never been able to work very effectively. Some people have said it was overhyped, but I say it was underdelivered. Nobody argued with the potential of it, it’s just that it didn’t really happen. Why? For the most part, it was based on the idea of imposed collaboration: Making it work required centralized control over the knowledge and the sharing of it. It’s a good theory, but it simply hasn’t worked. A lot of companies made people fill out skills profiles, on the theory that when someone, say, needs help with a Linux server installation, they can go into the KM database and find out who the experts are in the company. The problem was that the best experts wouldn’t cooperate and considered it beneath them, and at the other extreme, people who worried about getting laid off would be happy to expose their skills, which may or may not be that great.
So where does blogging fit in? It’s a way to energize the expertise from the bottom—in other words, to allow people who want to share, who are good at sharing, who know who the experts are, who talk to the experts or who may, in fact, be one of those experts, to participate more fully. We all know somebody in our organization who knows everything that’s going on. “Just ask Sally. She’ll know.” There’s always a Sally, and those are the people who become the bloggers. And such people write a blog about, say, customer relationship management, and they’re taking the time to find the experts and the links to leverage, to magnify what they’re writing about. And from those links people can be led to information and see things in a context they might not have considered before.
People won’t go to the company intranet to search for information. Instead, they’ll look in blogs see what people they trust and respect have to say. The company intranet simply doesn’t have that kind of credibility, nor ever will at many companies. Further, blogs aren’t old, like an HTML document that’s been there since 1997. Instead, blogs are very likely to be something that interests [the blogger] greatly. Bloggers are writing all the time about what’s current in various contexts and subject categories. Blogs are off-the-cuff, candid, real—and now.
There’s another thing about blogs that’s a little subtle. We all know people who are gifted in their written communications but who wouldn’t get up on stage even if you put a gun to their heads. But now we have this new channel, and people who can write but who can’t give a speech are getting judged on ideas rather than on Q-ratings.
How might a corporation use blogs?
Create a blog central, which might be company.com/blogcentral. On that Web page can be a list of the blogs of the experts or the representatives of those experts organized by subjects important to the company—metallurgy and Linux and CRM and so forth. They might find relevant information or links to other resources they didn’t know about. And, sure, you might have found it on Google, but you might not have, because the relationship between the problem you’re working on and the Web page that’s got the answer wasn’t obvious.
Some have asked whether there’s a role for customers, and there probably is a role for both intranet and extranet blogging. But I think there’s a danger that companies might try to invoke some rules to try to edit them, overregulate, overcontrol or sanitize them. Imagine how unread something would be, for example, if Bill Jones, the vice president of consumer safety, writes a blog on something that admonishes people to be careful about something. First, it’s corporate-speak more often than not, and second, everybody knows Bill Jones can’t find the on-off button on his laptop, so you know there’s no way he actually wrote the stuff himself. Blogs, to be credible, must not be overcontrolled, public relations documents. They’re best if they’re from the grassroots of the organization.
How do blogs work technically?
When you post a blog on the Web, an RSS feed is created. Now, unfortunately, this is an ugly technical name like so many profound things, you know, like XML. The technical community, I always say, is great at thinking through how stuff is going to work but they’re lousy at naming it. RSS, in fact, stands for Really Simple Syndication. It’s a syndication protocol, and what that means is when you write something, a table of contents is created of everything you’re ever written in this blog, like the cover of Reader’s Digest. Here are all of the latest things that appear from this blog on this subject area.
The RSS feed works just like that. It’s a table of contents of everything ever written in this blog, and it’s tagged in XML. The tags represent a date, author, subject, category, title. We all know a browser is a program that allows you to read Web pages. Similarly, a blog reader is a program that allows you to read weblogs. It’s a specialized piece of software. You don’t have to have that piece of software to have a blog, but if you have this specialized reader, it allows for blogs in your laptop to get updated automatically. So you take the address of the RSS feed off my weblog, for example, and you put it into your weblog reader, and now you have unilaterally subscribed to my weblog. There’s a very subtle but powerful aspect of this. You don’t have to fill out any profile, you don’t have to ask my permission. You can just do this. So now every time I write something, your blog reader is automatically updated periodically over the Internet. So you always have the latest information from my blog right there in the reader. And this reader doesn’t just get the latest stuff from my blog, but also from other blogs you’re tapping into. This information is continuously updated. It’s up to you to choose which information you want to be refreshed, and how often.
There are two ways you can be a blogger. One, you can set it up on your own server and there is a lot of software you can use for this. Radio UserLand is very popular. Six Apart is quite popular. It has a product called Movable Type and this company claims it’s the leading blogging software provider for corporate blogging applications. Movable Type, for example, works with MySQL or DB2 or Oracle or any relational database. It’s not computer-intensive, obviously. It’s mostly text. Second, CIOs don’t have to host blogs themselves, and instead can use a service, like blogger.com. Six Apart has just launched a new service called TypePad.
Now, multimedia is certainly possible here, and there are a lot of ideas growing up around blogging like audblog. Audblog is audio. You can call a phone number and dictate something, say, and when you hang up, it shows up on your weblog. Somebody goes to your weblog, they click on this little audblog icon, and can hear that dictation. If people start putting movies and music on blogs, then you can hear and see something in multimedia as part of a blog.
Where do you see the blogging movement going in the next three-to-five years?
I think we’ll see blogging become the first derivative of the Web. It takes the Web to a higher level. It allows for more effective communications and sharing of information in a very structured way. So it will enable millions of people to infuse their points of view into the knowledge stream, a kind of massive enrichment of knowledge. Sure, there will always be wackos and dumb blogs, just as there are wackos and dumb Web sites and dumb forms of media now. I think, though, that given the personal nature of blogs, they could be a bit destabilizing and disruptive, but that will be a good thing. The Internet has changed the world for the good. Sure, we also have security problems and hackers and spam and so forth, but to get rid of them, would we give up the global communications mechanism that allows for sharing of information? I don’t think so.
We Blog: Publishing Online with Weblogs By Paul Bausch, Matthew Haughey and Meg Hourihan
John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2002
A research project of the MIT Media Lab tracking the diffusion of information through the weblog community
“Open-editing” server software that lets people freely create and edit Web page content using any browser
Resource site hosted by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society
John Patrick’s blog