Finding the Enterprise Why in Wikis

BOSTON — Wikis can work. But do they work well in the enterprise?

If you ask some of the folks at Wachovia Bank, one of the largest financial institutions in the U.S., you may get the accountant’s answer: On one hand, sure, they work. On the other hand, it’s not clear whether they make that big a difference.

The bank got into social networks in a big way more than two years ago, blending blogs, collaborative environments, Wikis and instant messaging inside its corporate intranet.

The banking behemoth even developed a way to allow its more than 120,000 employees a way to view the company from a ‘social distance’ – or from the outside looking in. The result was a collaborative environment that looks slick and important, although most people in the organization haven’t a clue why it’s there.

“Many people who share this space are intuitive thinkers,” said Pete Fields, senior vice president at Wachovia’s eCommerce Division who helped bring the Wiki platform along for the company. “They know it’s relevant, but they don’t know why it is relevant,” he admitted.

The bank spent the last year or so identifying and defining the business processes behind its social computing architecture and building a business case for its existence. In short, Wachovia wanted to come up with some answers to the big why in enterprise social computing.

One these that came out of the research is that “virtual communities are as real and relational as actual communities,” said Fields, detailing the bank’s social computing journey at the Enterprise 2.0 conference I Boston this week.

Pfizer, Inc. is another pioneer social computing. The company launched a Web blog years ago and has since expanded that effort into Pfizerpedia, a sophisticated and collaborative Wiki encyclopedia and knowledge-sharing site.

Pfizerpedia now has more than 10,000 pages of information and projects, collected and shared by employees everywhere, said Simon Revell, manager of Enterprise 2.0 technology development at the drug company.

What the company found out along the way, however, is that social computing in the enterprise is not as easy as it looks, and that what works on the consumer side doesn’t necessarily fly as an internal corporate tool.

“Blogging, for example, is a difficult thing to do well,” noted Revell. “It is frivolous and fun and not serious. It can also be so boring that no one is actually reading it.”

Just as a poor mechanic may blame his tools, the problem with social computing in the enterprise may not lie in the technology but in the nature of the business.

“Business process management is a top down hierarchical endeavor, where workers are organized hierarchically,” said Mark Woollen, vice president of CRM product strategy at Oracle (NASDAQ: ORCL). People outside the company, on the other hand, especially consumers, are more organic and go about their business in a bottom up fashion.

The result is a disconnect in how to effectively use these snappy new collaborative tools, especially by middle managers who are more concerned with keeping the corporate train running on time than adding more baggage.

“Think about how people work and you will see a number of opportunities to rethink the game,” observed Woollen.

Oracle may be a little reluctant to trash the tools. After all, it’s putting its own social computing applications on display at the Enterprise 2.0 conference here this week. It includes Sales Prospector, a collection of applications that can pinpoint the buying patterns of customers and hint at where the next hot sales prospect may be. The final product is due to hit the street later this quarter.

Oracle also talked abut another piece of social software, called Talent Pool Management, that can be used by human resource staffers to find and recruit candidates for important or hard-to-fill positions.

Having the tools and technology is one thing, however, while putting them to use without toppling the apple cart is still a problem.

The fundamentals of management haven’t really changed in 40-50 years,” said Don Burke, who works for the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology. But “technology changes are occurring within the lifespan of an individual.”

As a result, you have people in positions of power who grew up without computers and Gen Y workers who have been connected since age eight.”

Maybe they will be able to sort out their differences on a Wiki.

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