Web 2.0: Benefits & Considerations

Why Use Web 2.0 Tools?

  • They support collaboration across time and space.
  • They are easily accessible and easy to use.
  • Many people already have a comfort level using them.
  • They are low-cost (sometimes even free).
  • They do not require much IT support.
  • They have very little “downtime.”
  • Because they are inexpensive and easy to use, there is little risk in trying them.

Jesse Wilkins, CDIA+

Bookmark and Share

Organizations will move faster or slower to Web 2.0 depending on their regulatory environment and tolerance for risk. But they are moving toward the technology – for a number of reasons.

1. Tools are simple to provide andmaintain. One of the challenges many organizations experience is maintaining an increasingly complex IT infrastructure. Even smaller organizations still have to provide their employees with e-mail, office productivity tools, and all the other capabilities required by the modern knowledge worker. Those applications require specialized, highly skilled people to provide, operate, and maintain them. For most organizations, something as simple as moving to the most current version of software is not so simple; ask your IT staff what the process is for upgrading to a new version of Microsoft Exchange. Web 2.0 tools are much simpler to provide and require no maintenance from the perspective of the organization.

2. They have little downtime. The next benefit is a bit counterintuitive and may not be applicable for the largest, most sophisticated organizations. But for the rest, uptime is a major issue. Most Web 2.0 tools simply don’t have downtime. Gmail has been in the news lately because it has experienced several outages; then again, it provides more than 7 GB of storage each to some 50 million users worldwide. Even taking those outages into account, Google has provided better than 99.9% uptime over the past 12 months, averaging 10 to 15 minutes downtime per month. That compares pretty favorably to all but the most mature enterprises.

3. They are low-cost. The previous two points lead to a third, which is perhaps the most important benefit of Web 2.0 tools. These tools are a fraction of the cost to provide and even lower cost to maintain. Granted, they generally include fewer capabilities, but some organizations see that as an additional benefit. Consider a small organization without the budget or technical expertise to implement a massively resilient e-mail system with automated failover and multiple stage-gate deployment capabilities. The cost to implement Web 2.0-based e-mail capabilities is significantly lower, and it requires almost no technical expertise. There are no upgrades, hot fixes, or service packs to apply, and no need to migrate – in fact, Web 2.0 tools have begun to turn the entire concept of software versioning on its head.

Almost all organizations today, regardless of their industry, sector, or size, rely on office productivity suites to get their work done. More than 90% of those organizations use a version of Microsoft Office. The average cost of Office 2007 to an organization is significantly higher, even for upgrades, than the cost of Google Apps, Thinkfree, Zoho, or any of a number of other competitors. These competitors offer much less functionality than Office, but this is not necessarily a bad thing for many users. They are generally compatible with basic Office files. And many of them are free – which is even harder to beat.

4. It takes little effort to make them productive. Another benefit of Web 2.0 is the ability to fail. What this means is that when an organization selects an enterprise software application, the cost and the effort to implement it generally demand that it be used by everyone in the organization, even when it comes with a steep learning curve and even when it isn’t necessarily the right tool for every usage. Web 2.0 tools cost very little and are generally easy enough to provide and use that the time required to be productive with them is short. And if the tool turns out to be the wrong one, it is relatively easy to move on to another tool.

One of the reasons Web 2.0 has found its way into organizations is because of users’ frustrations with IT and the difficulty they have encountered in getting access to the tools they need. So far, most organizations haven’t deployed wikis because the CEO read about them in a business magazine, or the CIO developed a detailed set of requirements and did a year-long analysis and feasibility study. Instead, wikis infiltrate organizations because users have a need for the collaboration capabilities and can deploy one as easily as signing up for a free pbwiki or Wikispaces account.

Organizations are also increasingly running into the “shadow IT department” – users that use these types of tools at home and are comfortable enough with them to be able to provide them without, and even in spite of, the organization’s IT department. And they are not that easy to stop. At last count, there are more than 250 Twitter-like tools, at least 40 web-based document creation and sharing tools, and more than 10,000 other Web 2.0- based tools. IT departments that try to completely prevent the usage of these tools face a rapidly moving target.

5. They facilitate collaboration. Finally, one of the most significant benefits of using Web 2.0 tools is how well they facilitate collaboration. Collaborating through e-mail and attachments is the norm for many organizations. Everyone has e-mailed to a group of people a message with an attachment for review. Most recipients review the attachment and send comments back; some send their comments in a message; some mark up the electronic document with change tracking; and others simply make changes to the document before sending it back. The sender receives all the comments, boils them down into the necessary changes, and sends them back out for another review cycle – and then gets additional comments from the first draft. This process is broken for most organizations.

From document-sharing tools like Scribd or Google Docs, to the wiki that was used to write this article,Web 2.0 tools include inherent collaboration capabilities. Many of them also offer networking and communication capabilities, so users know the status of a shared document: who is editing it and what changes were made when. This is particularly important when collaboration is required across a geographically dispersed organization.

Managing the Tools

So, given that users will use these tools, that organizations will find it increasingly difficult to block them, and that many organizations are looking at them as a legitimate opportunity to control costs and improve collaboration, how do organizations manage them effectively?

First, while users know they shouldn’t talk about their internal issues and challenges in public, they may not know that blogs, wikis, social networking, and other Web 2.0-type tools default to public access. Users also need to know that even if they don’t use their organization’s name, other people may recognize them and consider them to be publishing on their organization’s behalf.

Second, many of the tools have begun to mature. As they move from“bleeding edge” into mainstream usage, organizations are increasingly looking for the same types of functionality as from their other applications: identity integration, security, records retention and disposition, and the ability to place and enforce legal holds. And the market is responding. There are enterprise-focused versions of almost every major class of Web 2.0 application, including wikis, blogs, web conferencing and document sharing, and even social networking. Many of these can be implemented behind the organization’s firewall and integrated into the identity infrastructure such as Active Directory. They generally use open protocols and data structures (often XML-based), so organizations should have minimal difficulty exporting from one solution to another or applying retention controls and policies.

The key consideration for these tools, as with any other tools, is to do due diligence for the particular application. Review the service level agreement to see how realistic it is, how enforceable it is, and what happens if something happens. Select a vendor with a track record – and call its reference accounts. Integrate the tool into existing backup and disaster recovery protocols; many of these applications are web interfaces to database back ends, and database maintenance is mature technology.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that there are benefits to using these tools: They tend to be less expensive than their mainstream competitors; they are easier to implement; and if they don’t meet the organization’s needs, there may be another provider with similar capabilities ready to ink a deal.

There are risks to using these tools, but they are not insurmountable. Not every tool will be right for every organization or situation, but many will be useful for particular purposes. Organizations need to be smart about how to use the tools to maximum benefit while maintaining effective control over their usage. And many organizations will want to consider enterprise versions of these tools and do their due diligence before committing.

Records managers must be full partners in the process of selecting and evaluating these services and tools. They will need to adapt their principles to suit this new environment. They cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand in hopes that this is a passing fad.

See "Web 2.0 Issues & Risks" by Patrick Cunningham.

Jesse Wilkins may be contacted at jwilkins@accesssciences.com.


From January - February 2009