Dark blogs

(Note: this was first written in 2005.)

Blogs are everywhere, and you know they have reached the point of no return when corporate IT departments begin to evaluate different blogging software tools and the topic gets cover story treatment from Business Week and Fast Company, for those of you that haven’t looked at a printed magazine in a while.

But what got me going was reading the a research report written by Suw Charman called Dark Blogs: The Use of Blogs in Business. The report is a case study of large European pharmaceutical company’s implementation of Traction Software’s TeamPage, a commercial blogging tool. Given that the report was paid for by Traction, you want to take a few of its conclusions with care, but still it gives some good advice when it comes to implementing blogs in the corporate world.

There has been a lot written about using corporate blogs for external communication, such as the CEO blogs from Schwartz, Cuban et al. But what caught my eye was how blogs have developed into a new IT tool for internal communications of the common cubicle dwellers, deep behind the corporate firewall (hence the name dark blog).

Before I roll through Charman’s conclusions I want to point out a couple of things that struck me reading her report. The pharma needed some software to keep track of its competitors and have a central place where researchers and corporate management could easily capture this information and comment on it. They were having problems with keeping up to date and getting the right people to discuss what was going on, and went looking for solutions.

They weren’t happy with their previous systems, using various Web-based intranets and applications built on top of Lotus Notes. The information they track is fairly unstructured and comes from lots of different sources. Notes is a very structured program, which is great for building databases on the fly but not so great if the information doesn’t have a consistent format and structure. The company wanted something that had the group collaboration dynamic of a blog, with the flavor of editing-on-the-fly of a wiki that was easy to use and didn’t require special software outside of the Web browser. Does this sound familiar? I can’t tell you how many companies I talk to want something similar. Heck, I want something similar for my crew here at Tom’s.

So what happened? The company built its blogs (they had several underway, which shows you how useful they were) in such a way as to tie in with the corporate LDAP directory structure (for a single user login) and to provide email notifications when new entries were posted. I think both of these are big reasons for its success, because it wasn’t as technologically disruptive to the corporate culture as it could have been. Pharmas are big email consumers, and having a blog technology that fit in with their email habits was important.

Second, they ran their blog like we run our publishing mini-empire here at Tom’s, with an editor-in-chief and a publishing process that was well defined to get material from the individual author to the Web. A lot of people mistake this process with censorship or control of information, but the actual use (and what seems to be happening at this pharma company) is to polish and make the information readable and attractive and organized. The Traction software also allows for an edit audit trail to see who was editing what piece when and a permissions system so that not everyone can edit or even view every piece. Too many blogs are just typing and not a real editorial product. You need extra pairs of eyes and brains (hopefully both connected and working together) to make sure that what gets posted makes sense.

Charman mentioned these other lessons:

  • Taking blogs to the corporate masses
  • The blogs’ aims were clear and precise and had been well defined
  • The project had the full support of the CEO and upper management
  • There was a well constructed project plan, which included consideration of high level issues such as structure, taxonomy and search requirements as well as day to day user requirements
  • The open commenting system allows for dialogue with users
  • Integration with existing systems and technologies created a more seamless user experience
  • Read permission control means that potentially sensitive information can only be accessed only by those who need it

Charman says in the report that “Compared to setting up a similar project on a more traditional CMS or KM platform, the project has been simpler, faster, more effective and less expensive to implement.” And that is perhaps the best lesson for today’s IT departments: find a technology that you can roll out quickly, that doesn’t require a great deal of training, and get the right people behind it. While you are at it, roll it out to a focused user group to build word of corporate mouth prior to a company-wide launch.

Looking for more tips about dark blogs? CIO Insight’s Edward Cone offers these suggestions in his story about corporate blogging.

Blogging.org has a nice rundown on how to make money with your blog that is aimed more for individuals, but still has some great advice for corporations.

Granted, blogs are the new religion, or the new color black, or the return of/son of push technology or the latest killer app, depending on your time and tenure in the IT industry. But like so many other corporate IT projects, their success or failure hinges not on the actual technology itself, but how you finesse the people parts of the equation and sell the app to userland.  The pharma case study is a good example of these “softer” parts of the IT equilibrium and how well it can work. It is nice to see that sometimes IT can get it right and be the good guys for a change.

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