Corporate blogging: Does it really work?

Companies struggle to harness the free-flowing energy of the blogosphere

Editor's note: This article is part of a package that examines blogging in the workplace. For a look at how IT departments are dealing with the encroachment of blogs into the business world, see "IT wrestles with workplace blogging."

Mark Boxer wanted to talk to his employees about the top issues at work.

So the president and CEO of operations, technology and government services at WellPoint Inc. sent out weekly e-mails under the header "Thoughts for a Friday" and encouraged his workers to e-mail back.

But while Boxer sought open communication with his employees, there was a problem with his system: He was reaching thousands of workers at the Indianapolis-based health benefits company. The e-mail approach to keeping up the conversation was cumbersome.

Boxer figured there had to be a better way for communicating on such a large scale, so in June 2007 he tried blogging.

The results have been positive. "It's been a very effective way for building a community," Boxer says. "It's a unifying force."

Blogs are moving from the social realm to the corporate world. But companies aren't replicating the free-flowing exchange that has been a hallmark of the broader blogosphere. Rather, companies are trying to harness that freedom and conform it to business needs, with forward-thinking companies using strategic planning and formal policies to shape the use of blogs and other Web 2.0 tools to drive more communication and collaboration among workers.

"The real revolution of blogging isn't that you can take Dan Rather down in three months or expose a congressman, but that people have been given access to a content management system that they like," says DL Byron, principal of Textura Design Inc., a Seattle firm specializing in business blogging, and author of Publish & Prosper: Blogging for Your Business (New Riders/Peach Pit Press, 2006).

Bringing on the blogs

Companies are using internal blogs for several purposes, according to a June 2007 survey of IT decision-makers at U.S. companies with 500 or more employees that are piloting or have implemented blogs. According to the survey by Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., 63% are using blogs for internal communications, 50% for internal knowledge and communication, and 47% to position the company and its team as thought-leaders in their field. In addition, 46% use external-facing blogs (that is, blogs generally viewable on the Internet) for marketing to customers and prospects.

Companies are using blogs to promote collaboration, particularly across distributed organizations, to manage projects and to handle workflow processes, according to Anil Dash, vice president of evangelism at Six Apart Ltd., a blogging software and services company in San Francisco.

To be sure, these business processes existed well before blogs -- even before computers. Forrester analyst Oliver Young says that blogs are generally being launched to replace or supplement existing technologies and tools, such as e-mail -- WellPoint's use being a fine case in point.

But blogs allow workers to pursue and complete these tasks with greater ease and efficiency in many cases, Byron says.

"Here's this new tool that's really inexpensive, that helps you get your job done, and that's easier for you," Byron says. "There's a pent-up need for people to communicate, and if you make it easy for people to communicate, they will. That's what blogging is doing internally."

The nature of the beast

Despite that, corporate adoption of blogs hasn't been overwhelming. According to Forrester, 46% of executives surveyed in June said their companies have no current investments in blogs and no plans to make any. Some 59% of those execs said they have no current need for the technology, 32% said they have more critical problems to solve and 17% said they have other technology that provides the same benefit.

But blogging advocates say executives and workers alike misunderstand the nature of a blog, which has bred reluctance to trying them at work.

"Blogs do mean different things to different people," says David Carter, chief technology officer and co-founder of Awareness Inc., an on-demand social media company in Waltham, Mass. Some think of them as sloppy Web sites, online personal diaries, or quick and easy ways to publication.

Carter sees blogs as a potentially much broader medium -- something more akin to the company's own roots in content management applications. He also says he sees them as just one tool in the larger portfolio of corporate social media, which includes wikis and networking sites.

Carter admits, however, that getting managers to view them as broadly and see the potential of all the Web 2.0 technologies often takes convincing. Nonetheless, more companies are deploying blogs, often implementing them for specific projects and then expanding their presence to meet workers' demands for the tool.

"Two years ago when we started doing this, people weren't coming to us saying, 'We need a blogging platform,'" Carter explains. "They'd come to us looking for content management solutions, and we'd present this. But then blogging became cool, and now every organization is examining enterprise social media and trying to find out how they can use it."

Peer pressure prompts participation

Xerox Corp., a $16 billion company in Stamford, Conn., with 53,700 employees worldwide, could serve as a case study for that point.

The company's Innovation Group implemented a blog two years about, but group members only started actively blogging last year after one colleague challenged co-workers to blog at least once a week, says Bill Stumbo, a researcher at the Innovation Group.

Converts followed, Stumbo says, as workers started to see how they could talk about their ideas for projects, solicit feedback and garner important insight from posted responses. "It has helped round out the projects we were doing and expose them to a wider audience," Stumbo says.

One colleague posted a research idea and asked whether his co-workers thought his idea was worth pursuing. The feedback was positive, Stumbo says, with some people advising their colleague on how to focus the terminology and shape the research. The colleague also identified other like-minded researchers who could help him work through research questions. "It's that interaction you have with people that helps you build your ideas better," Stumbo says.

Although Stumbo says that kind of interaction can happen without the use of blogs -- or indeed any kind of technology at all -- he says the Xerox blog certainly made those connections much easier and more likely.

"Research at Xerox is spread around the globe, and even where I am, you're spread out among a lot of buildings, so you can miss the water cooler conversations," Stumbo says. "Blogs allow more real-time feedback."

Remember to see "IT wrestles with workplace blogging" for a look at how IT departments are dealing with the encroachment of blogs into the business world.

Pratt is a
Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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