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Blogs Clean Up Project Management Messes

Blogs Clean Up Project Management Messes

Enterprise users can get lost in storms of “reply all” e-mails while trying to manage projects. Blogs offer a better way

BLOGGING | Eugene Roman, group president of systems and technology at Bell Canada, knows how to play a blog. An enterprise blog, that is. And he has taught his employees to play a blog so well that they often have "jam" sessions - an internal blog forum where groups of employees discuss new products and work to streamline efficiencies at the $18 billion telecom. "It's like grabbing some instruments and going into a garage," Roman says.

Except, Bell Canada's garage is virtual and lives on the corporate intranet. The primary instrument, a lightweight enterprise blogging tool, lets co-workers blog about topics from figuring out ways to cut energy costs to conceiving new products for Bell Canada, whose distributed workforce stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. (Roman chose Telligent's Community Server 2.0 and did some in-house development for the blog effort.)

Roman's embrace of blogs shows that he understands an ugly secret that many IT departments don't want to admit: E-mail, used by itself, just doesn't cut it any more for project management and interoffice communication. People get lost in "CC storms" of reply-all e-mails that overwhelm users trying to manage projects or collaborate on new business opportunities. "There's definitely a dark side to e-mail," Roman says. "We've all had it for 20 years, and you'd think we could get it right."

But most companies haven't got it right, and recent research indicates they're looking for alternatives. A 2007 report by consultancy Forrester Research revealed that 54 percent of IT decision makers expressed an interest in blogs. Of the companies that had piloted or implemented blogs, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said they used them for internal communications. Fifty percent said they used blogs for internal knowledge and content management - and these companies are leading the way of the future, analysts say.

If you're just now preparing to take the blog plunge, changing decades of work habits for a generation of information workers tethered to e-mail won't be easy. Blogs also remain a tough sell for traditional IT leaders who value a command-and-control, top-down hierarchy when it comes to their infrastructure. "Traditional enterprise solutions were designed to keep IT happy," says Suw Charman, a social software consultant who helps companies understand the use of blogs and wikis in business. "They're not usually designed with any thought to the user, like a blog is."

For implementation success, say analysts and practitioners like Roman who have championed the technology, you'll need enterprise-worthy blogging tools and test group members who become believers and ideally will evangelize the technology. If successful, blogs could be the first critical building block in a group of Web-based applications to help spawn horizontal collaboration across the enterprise.

Clearing the Reputation Hurdle

One starting hurdle: Blogs still suffer a reputation problem within large enterprises (and even small and medium-size businesses), analysts say. Many people carry a narrow view of what blogs can accomplish. "People are hung up on this concept of the blog as a diary and as an external marketing medium," says Charman. "There are actually very practical uses for blogs internally."

At a large company, the people most likely to have this narrow view of blogs are the C-level executives themselves. How can you combat this misconception? In the beginning of a blog effort, Bell Canada's Roman says, companies should consider avoiding the word blog altogether and use a euphemism. "Calling it something like an idea board can be good start," he says. "That's less threatening than saying, 'I want to start a virtual water cooler where people can blog and discuss new products.'"

It's also important to address security and compliance issues from the start, Roman notes. Bell Canada addressed those concerns by building the blog behind the corporate firewall. Remote workers can access it only through the corporate intranet using a virtual private network (VPN). "The executives are immediately concerned about legality," he says. "So you lay out what the rules of engagement will be. That makes them more comfortable with going forward."

Start Small

While blogs are typically most useful when many users participate, analysts and practitioners say you're better off to start small. Blogs work well when they catch on virally, and you need to introduce the idea to the right test group, who will then evangelize the idea to the rest of the enterprise.

Sometimes, that test group has already given up on enterprise tools, as Dr Mark Greenhalgh recently learned. Greenhalgh, a family physician, sought a test group for his social networking portal (which includes a blogging feature) launching as part of an initiative funded by the UK's department of health. The best candidate turned out to be what IT managers would call a "rogue IT" group (one that seeks out a consumer-grade technology to help do its jobs when enterprise tools disappoint). The Public Health Commissioning Network - a group of 200 physicians who allocate scarce funds for drugs, technology and research - had taken to using a Yahoo discussion forum to avoid long, tangled e-mail threads. While the forum was password protected, Greenhalgh says the doctors needed something better. "They have pretty sensitive talks and they need to keep it reasonably quiet," he says.

The Public Health Commissioning Network and two other groups will serve as a test group for Greenhalgh. He hopes to make them advocates who will encourage other physicians to get on board. "I'm giving them a platform that's more dedicated to their needs," he says. "We need to then bring people into these communities so they can gain momentum."

Bell Canada's Roman also successfully used pilot groups for his blogging platform and other Web 2.0 technologies. "The test group is very critical," he says. "You need a friendly test group. You want them to give you the critique, but they also become the champion and say: Wow, this is cool, and tell their colleagues."

This blog effort, dubbed "ID-ah" by Bell Canada, was first used by a few hundred employees in 2006, with a full roll-out companywide in early 2007. The "jam sessions" started in 2007 as well.

To date, more than 1000 ideas have been submitted by employees, 3000 comments shared about the ideas, and 15,000 employees (out of 40,000 Bell Canada employees) have voted, Roman says. Of the 1000 ideas, 27 of the top voted ideas have been "harvested" for review in the past six months and 12 have been implemented, he adds.

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