Special Report:

Social networking becomes work

Bad news for office Luddites still struggling to get to grips with e-mail.

The next wave in office productivity, represented by wikis (editable websites), blogs and other social networking technologies, is here. Experts say these tools will transform the way work is done by encouraging new types of collaboration.

Google, not surprisingly, is one of the best-known exponents. Every Google employee can create a blog and contribute to the company’s internal wikis.

Social technologies play an essential role in keeping the creative juices flowing and also help Google keep track of its rapidly growing numbers of ideas, projects and employees.

The laid-back atmosphere of the Googleplex might seem light years away from the dark-suited City of London. But Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, the investment bank, is also a believer in the brave new world of wikis and blogs.

“We recognised early on that these tools would allow us to collaborate more effectively than existing technologies,” says JP Rangaswami, chief information officer at DrKW.

More than 450 DrKW employees have internal blogs and the bank has built an internal wiki with more than 2,000 pages which is used by a quarter of its workforce. After just six months, the traffic on the wiki exceeds that on the entire DrKW intranet.

Mr Rangaswami says one of the most popular uses for the wiki is to create meeting agendas – a task fraught with political pitfalls: “Using wikis is much more participative and non-threatening, as people can see what other people have suggested,” he says.

The wiki is also used with video clips to substitute traditional manuals in training new recruits.

DrKW uses Really Simple Syndication (RSS) technology to inform employees when the contents of wikis or blogs are changed.

RSS is widely used by websites, including FT.com, to send tailored content to subscribers.

However, the use of RSS inside businesses is new and it opens up many possibilities, according to Ron Rasmussen, chief technology officer of KnowNow, a US vendor specialising in enterprise RSS.

“Just imagine if you could combine data from a customer relationship management application such as Salesforce.com with news headlines from FT.com and blog content from the blogosphere,” he says.

This is what vendors of enterprise portal software have long claimed to provide: a single “dashboard” where data from business applications is displayed alongside content from many sources.

But portals are a “heavyweight” technology, argues Mr Rasmussen, and it is difficult to integrate the information feeds. “RSS makes it much easier to stitch together your information,” he says.

KnowHow’s hosted service aggregates content from blogs, newsfeeds and applications such as Oracle. The content is filtered to match the interests of each user and pushed out as RSS alerts, either to a Google browser bar, a dedicated RSS reader or an instant messaging client.

Mr Rasmussen says that one US financial institution plans to use KnowHow for brand awareness and competitor intelligence. He explains: “They want to monitor what the blogosphere is saying about them and their competitors.”

The blogging phenomenon is widespread on the internet but it is unusual to find businesses such as Google or DrKW that encourage employees to create blogs for internal use.

Robin Hopper, chief executive of iUpload, a Canadian company that specialises in hosting corporate blogs, says the picture is changing. Businesses that have given their employees blogs often discover a new and surprisingly rich source of information that they can mine in different ways – to feed the company’s public-facing websites and blogs, for example.

About 90 per cent of the news content on the public website of Cannondale, the US bike manufacturer and an iUpload customer, is supplied from blog postings by Cannondale staff.

“They have realised that with blogs they can capture very valuable information,” says Mr Hopper. Mcdonald’s, the fast-food chain, is another iUpload customer.

Nevertheless, Mr Hooper admits many businesses remain suspicious of blogging, as they fear employees will post irrelevant ramblings of the “what my cat ate for breakfast” variety.

Mr Rangaswami recognises the problem but says DrKW has not suffered from blogger banality: “Is blogging a good use of company time? They are going to have these conversations anyway – in the lift, for example – and if the topic is boring, people lose interest. It is self-policing.”

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