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Use of Web 2.0 for collective intelligence by SMBs

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CIOL Bureau
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Web2.0 was one of the most hyped technologies of 2006. It brought forth a new way of looking at the web and the user's interactions - with user squarely in the middle, rather than being a passive user on the fringes. User now has a richer experience and a more participatory role in the contents and activities on the web.

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Web2.0 is essentially a social software

So far, all references to the new web are in a social or community context. Be it the Flickrs (that offer free photo sharing, tagging and publishing services) or the Orkuts and Myspaces that provide social communities, or the Groupers and YouTubes that enable sharing and publishing videos, that also often proves to be both a serious source for good talent and a good channel to publish good content. And then there are the technologies like wikis that help "build" the content even as one is viewing it, or the logs that serve as a serious channel to publish and discuss opinions, or even folksonomy that through its simple information tagging mechanism provides a very good way to organize, manage and locate information.

And on a slightly different front is the new way of building web interfaces using the Rich Internet Architectures (RIA). Here the user has more information, better UI experience and better interactions with

the service or site. Even this puts user in more control. Just as users collectively manage the content or the activity on social sites, here with RIA the user has more and better interactions. In essence, web2.0 puts the users in the middle.

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Web2.0 in the enterprise - Enterprise 2.0

Web2.0 in the enterprise, often loosely referred to as Enterprise 2.0, is seriously emerging. A few months ago, Dion Hinchcliff had made predictions for Enterprise 2.0; summarized clearly in the phrase - "Consumerization of the enterprise". In essence, bringing otherwise retail end user tools such as wikis, blogs and tagging to serious enterprise use.

What's in it for SMBs?

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Small and medium businesses (SMBs) by nature have to be very agile and responsive to the market needs and trends to ensure opportunities are not missed. They have to constantly look at optimizing their resource utilization and be more creative in their business/product offerings and execution. The employees and managers need to manage their information and knowledge as a very streamlined tool.

Information that any employee possesses must be available to others to help in delivering their tasks and job. This saves a good amount of redundant time and effort to locate the same information or approach.

Once located, others can easily access the same information. While in a societal context, the collective and communities present a social angle, a SMB can use the same very effectively for collaboration among employees; sharing and leveraging each others' knowledge and experiences.

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Knowledge: Employee wisdom

Why Richer User Experience is Key
When it comes to software, richer user experience is probably an easier sell. For an SMB- smaller means, “must be better” to catch the attention. In any client facing enterprise, the user experience has to be good to ensure users com, do business and continue to do so repeatedly. RIA can be very creatively and productively used to ensure this experience.
 
RIA essentially comprises of richer graphics, better user interfaces, asynchronous access to backend resources resulting in better user experience and solution responsiveness.
                          
If an SMB application is a client facing solution, then it has to be very usable, intuitive and aesthetic. RIA enables this. Using rich UI techniques such as AJAX, Flash/flex, DHTML significantly enhances the user experience. And then, user experience can be enhanced by building in secondary info into the solution; like in a financial solution, can include today’s market indices or such in one corner of the UI. Info comes from the web, but is presented to the user as part of the app UI.

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Dan Farber highlights the potential that Web2.0 holds for enterprises in managing employee wisdom. An indication of the seriousness is that this was a complete panel discussion theme at the Web2.0 Expo held recently.

Two observations were very crisp: "What strikes me as the most important facet of Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 is applying collective intelligence, the wisdom of employees, partners and customers to enterprises."

And, "It's a major cultural shift for organizations governed by centralized command and control to allow usage of bottom up, lightweight, less costly, distributed, collaborative Web tools that offer more flexibility and less rigid work flows."

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Collaborate,  Harness Knowledge!

One common way of capturing and organizing collective knowledge and information is using Wikis. Wikis provide a good mechanism to capture information and knowledge. Easy to add content, change content and organize content. This is not to replace the existing operational systems like SFA or ERP. This is to capture the human intelligence and wisdom that goes into working with these structured systems.

The new way of working with the web, provides some additional tools and approaches to work with this fuzzy information and knowledge. That hitherto has by and large been in the individual minds and maybe in dusty reports in remote shelves.

At Pramati we have been using the tools for over three years now. In places one would least expect- like say in managing the product and release features/tasks. The wiki based model is extremely nimble and facilitates collaborative release management where everyone updates the info relevant to/generated by them.

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What next?

Now, what is more topical for me is the preposition: can we take this participatory enterprise to the next level. Instead of employees collaborating using intranet tools, can they collaborate using personal productivity tools running on their desktop.

In essence: I manage my info on my desktop. Yet, all the info on all desktops is available when needed. Made semantically relevant by the mining tools around them! This is now easily possible by the web-desktop tools (Apollo, Dekoh and such) getting a lot of mind share and traction. In the coming months, look out for more serious tools/products in the enterprise 2.0 space, that will take the relevance of Web2.0 for SMBs to the next level!

 Author: Ramesh Loganathan, VP, Middleware Technologies, Pramati, Hyderabad