When Will Business Embrace Blogs?

file-cabinetI started my blog in February 2003, about two years ago, because it was part of my job to investigate leading-edge developments in Knowledge Management (KM). This was at a time when my personal online time was dropping precipitously. I had set up ‘Profiles’ which sent all the news from the 5000 sources subscribed to by my employer, on 65 subjects of either business or personal interest to me, to my ‘personalized newspaper’ — a single web page which contained everything I needed to read. I also read the New York Times headlines, which I received by e-mail, and a few magazines — The New Yorker, Fast Company, Innovation Weekly, and Wired. Other than that I read books. That was it. I found online forums a waste of time, and had little cause to do any additional research. I never just ‘surfed the Net’. I was rarely online for more than 15 minutes a day (other than for e-mail). I had set up my own small website but only changed it once a year because no one read it anyway.

So when I read that blogs were the next big thing in KM I was dubious. It took an eternity even trying to understand what they were — everyone had their own definition that seemed to deliberately exclude most of the actual applications of the leading blogging tools. When I finally realized that blogs were simply online journals, I decided to start one to get a feel for what they were about, and to start reading them to assess their potential value to business. Since I have always had a passion for writing, my own blog quickly proved addictive: Not only could I easily post my writing, as often as I wanted, without learning about HTML — people actually read and commented on what I wrote! But it was only after I started learning about RSS — the ability to send blog content to personal subscription pages the same way my Profiles filtered, aggregated and delivered all the site-licensed content, that I realized blogging was also a robust electronic publishing and subscription medium. And both the tools and the content were essentially free. At that point I started posting articles on my blog about KM and Innovation (the other focus of my job), and was surprised to find that my readership went up as a result.

So I proposed to my employer that we do a blog pilot in the company, for the three groups that already had a ready-made audience, in the company and outside, for their content:

  • Newsletter writers and Content Aggregators in our Communications and Marketing departments, and our National Practice offices who wrote technical briefs on regulatory and professional matters;
  • Subject Matter Specialists, who knew the most in the firm about specific major accounts, industries or professional disciplines, and who could reduce the enormous volume of incoming information requests by making their ‘filing cabinets‘ available to others; and
  • Community of Practice Coordinators, whose job it was to make communities work by pulling information into shared ‘spaces’, pushing it out to those who needed it, and responding to daily urgent information requests

No sale. This was at a time when KM budgets were being slashed, and there was no money even for experiments unless there was an immediate and significant measurable payback.

Two years later these three constituencies remain the most likely candidates for Blogs in Business, yet few organizations have introduced them. Even the KM Directors I speak to, in a diverse range of industries, are unwilling to embrace blogs as a small but important part of their KM efforts.

Why not? So far it all comes down to bad timing (with the number of spectacular business failures, embarrassing leaks, disgraceful scandals, onerous new regulations and security challenges, this is not a great time to be proposing tools that enable a freer flow of business information), and Kotter 101: John Kotter in Leading Change explains that the two critical preconditions for a successful business change initiative are (1) a sense of urgency about a critical business problem and (2) executive sponsorship for the proposed solution.

urgentimportantEven if the timing of the explosion of the blogging phenomenon had been better, what is the great urgency for introducing blogs, yet another tool to send yet more content to people already overwhelmed by technology and information overload? What critical business problem are they solving? And what executive is going to sponsor and show the way, when most executives haven’t the time, skill or interest to go online at all?

It seems to me that, so far, Blogs in Business advocates have been targeting their proposals at the wrong quadrants (II and IV) of Covey’s urgent/important matrix. The irony is that blogging’s suitability to these contents is precisely what makes them such a popular personal hobby: At the end of the workday, people want to reflect and unwind, to think about things that are not urgent and which are either important but not really actionable (what most political blogs are about) or not really important either, but just interesting or entertaining (what most technology and other blogs are about). There are exceptions of course: last year’s US election campaign was certainly an urgent matter, but even there the really urgent stuff was done with social networking tools (like MeetUp) and on political activist websites (like MoveOn). Blogs were, and are, all talk and no action. They are not designed to address urgent matters.

As Covey points out, the focus of business attention is almost exclusively short-term (quadrants I and III). The best and fastest and most context rich way to obtain or transmit information is face to face or by telephone, or, in a pinch, IM. They are the media of urgency and they are not surprisingly the media through which most business (and almost all urgent business) is conducted. Blogs give you nice-to-know or interesting-to-know or fun-to-know (quadrant IV) information and occasionally need-to-know-but-not-urgently information (quadrant II). But no matter how brilliant your KM and Intranet architecture may be, when you need to know now, you don’t go online, you walk down the hall or pick up the phone or jump on an airplane.

The value propositions for blogs in business, as I summarized in an earlier post, are:

  • They make contributing information simpler, easier, and more automatic
  • They make it easier to update information on a timely basis
  • They make information more context rich
  • They allow the authors of key business information to build and retain ‘pride of ownership’
  • They make contributing information more fun, since it becomes more like ‘publishing’
  • Each individual’s ‘collection’ of shared information is easy to define and assess at performance evaluation time
  • They make information easier to route, to ‘subscribe’ to, to canvass and to ‘mine’

See what I mean? All nice-to-haves, but not enough urgency to survive the budget cuts.

I think, as a result, business will embrace blogs (1) when they finally do get an executive sponsor, and (2) when they have no choice. An executive sponsor who is passionate about blogs and has authority to move ‘pet’ projects forward can push blogging initiatives through even in the absence of a broad sense of urgency. The designers of blog tools could make this happen sooner if they reinvented the tools to improve worker productivity and work effectiveness — there is at least some sense of urgency about that. I’d love to be part of a design brainstorming session to create a blog-like tool that addressed many of the impediments to work effectiveness that are endemic in business today.

And even if that doesn’t happen, the day will come when business has no choice but to embrace blogs. For many on the front lines and in the junior ranks of business, blogs are already an indispensable part of keeping abreast of what’s happening in their area of specialty, of staying informed about trends and events at the ‘edge’ of their business that are increasingly important to success, and of peer-to-peer conversations and informal exchange of information and ideas. If business won’t accommodate them within the company’s information systems, people will find ‘work-arounds’ to allow them to get, share and exchange the ideas and information they need (non-urgently) anyway. And they’ll migrate to blog-friendly companies. So business will finally have to get smart and allow these ‘peripheral’ exchanges to be leveraged within the organization.

They might even discover there’s some money in it, and that there are some other fringe benefits to accommodating blogs as part of every employee’s work product and workflow: serendipitous learning, improved morale, deepening and broadening of expertise, and better quality and currency of information as authors keep ‘ownership’ of it instead of throwing it over the wall into big centralized repositories.

More of my articles on Blogs and Blogging;
More of my articles on Blogs in Business.

This entry was posted in Using Weblogs and Technology, Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to When Will Business Embrace Blogs?

  1. otterhound says:

    I think wikis might make it into businesses before blogs do. Wikis are group authoring environments and are good ways of capturing group knowledge (e.g. wikipedia). I think they would make great documentation generation systems.Blogs, to me, are constrained by the date-orientation paradigm, and I thus think of themas primarily “news” publishing systems.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Jim: Maybe, although wikis are intimidating to both non-techies and security guys in business. Blogs don’t have to be uniquely organized by date (though I admit they are now and that’s a problem). I like mindmaps as documentation generation systems, but they’re getting resistance in business as too ‘geeky’ too. Slow going all round.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    imo … clean, clear, comprehensive and compelling post. I think blogs are the closest thing yet, in terms of latent capability for a corporate/organizational context, for bridging the gap (actually, walking across the bridge that bridges the gap) between tacit and explicit knowledge … and archiving both as a by-product, btw. I also think many people know or feel that the major stumbling block is that blogs, if used with any semblance of honesty, may at any given time shine too bright a light on the political and power dynamics that run along below the surface in most organizations .. the issues that leadership development and culture change initiatives are often supposed to address in constructive ways. Jim’s point is good, although I think also that not enough is generally known about the ways blog applications can be designed .. there’s a range of knowledge architectures, if you will, available .. that offer different processes for creating, sharing, cataloguing and retrieving the knowledge that ends up both available-on-the-surface and embedded in a blog. Wikis, generally, too geeky, I agree, tho’ I remember seeing something called a StikiWiki some months back that looked very easy to use and clear in its navigation.MindManager is pretty damn good.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Jon: Thanks. There is some potential for blogs in business to be subversive, but I don’t think that’s the reason why execs are balking at them. IM is subversive, too, but it is so cheap and so easy to implement that execs haven’t prohibited it in many organizations.

  5. mrG says:

    I don’t completely deny Kotter’s chart, but I can think of endless examples where high-urgency , high-importance changes were not embraced … immediately.There’s the rub: In ever industry, there are measurable and reliable time lags between the invention of a new technology and it’s mass adoption. This is well documented by the Buckminster Fuller Institute and others. In electronics, it’s about 18 months, in the building trades (home construction) it’s about 30 years.In the software business, my own analysis shows an industrial time lag of 3 to 5 years, skewed to the longer period. Windows did not take over business on day one, it took 3 years from 3.1, and it took 3 years from Windows95 before ’98 became the ubiquitous office desktop. WiFi: 4 years. Websites: 5 years (1990-1995) RSS: 6 years (1998-2004) The list goes on.You can’t push the sunrise. The critical question becomes where to peg the start of blogging, project oneself 5 years from then, and that’s where you put your money :) I figure blogs really didn’t start until the Triad of RadioUserland, MovableType and Salon (maybe Livewire too) and those all came into the fold when, 2002? 2003?What’s essential, however, is to light the fuse. Those of us who introduce new ideas into an industry shouldn’t concern ourselves with world domination and instant gratification, we should be content simply to have ignited the flame; if it’s a bad idea, it will fizzle, but if it is a good idea, the widespread adoption is inevitable … in 3 to 5 years.

  6. Mike says:

    Business will need to get on the Cluetrain before we see large scale acceptance of blogs and wikis. In my experience many business owners are far too paranoid to accept any reduction in their control over the external appearance of their company.

Comments are closed.