Apr 04 2008

The Next E-Chapter

What agencies can do to make the move beyond one-stop Web sites and portals.

Many government intranet users still believe in comprehensive, all-things-to-all-issues Web pages, which have come to be known as one-stop shops. There is a reason for this: The ability to find requested data outside of Web 2.0 tools — wikis, blogs, social bookmarks, widgets, mashups and the like — has been severely limited by a lack of syndicated content, user-based tagging systems and inferior search technologies. These inherent roadblocks in locating data quickly encouraged federal producers to try and fit as much as they could on a single Web site.

The obvious problem with the Webmaster model is that information quickly becomes out of date and rarely receives updates, and it is nearly impossible to capture everything. How can a single person or group of people build a site that contains all necessary information and predict how individual users will search for that data? One-stop shopping was always a myth because it limited a user’s ability to find and use data, but there was no better alternative.

New tools are beyond a tipping point; search-and-find problems are diminished. The coincident explosion of Web-based content and vastly improved information retrieval technology demands that agencies create sites that locate, evaluate and analyze information differently. There is simply too much data for a single Web site, Webmaster or small information technology group to catalog in a manner that will be useful to everyone.

First: Accept the Guiding Principle

The catchphrase “Web 2.0” is not so much a reference to a particular technology as it is an indicator of the shift in the content delivery model: Users — not producers — control the way they find and use information. With that in mind, here are some pointers to make this approach to data and collaboration work in your agency.

In the Web 2.0 world, users generate their own portals of content. But many new intranet Web 2.0 users often carry old mindsets and practices into the new model. For example, some new wiki users often cut and paste from existing IT infrastructures to create sites that mirror existing content. This is understandable because many organizations make it extremely difficult for users outside of IT departments to update Web sites. Regardless the intention, this practice undermines the crowd-sourcing power of a wiki by re-hosting content generated by a few.

In the Web 2.0 fabric, it is no longer one person’s or small group’s responsibility to update and generate content; it’s now everyone’s responsibility.

In a wiki, all users are essentially Webmasters, in the sense that they can upload files and edit content. The typical wiki user may not have advanced Web design skills, but advanced pages are not the primary goal of the wiki. Many organizations spend considerable time and resources debating the form of content. The “container” is important but not as important as the content. When it comes to wikis, content is king; form should follow content, not the other way around. The debate about wikis throughout your organization should focus on getting more eyes on content to improve accuracy, not whether it looks pretty or whether the corporate Webmaster approves of the design.

Second: Work Topically, Not Organizationally

Hundreds of years of working under hierarchical organizational models have ingrained the desire to promote the department over the agency, the agency over the office, or the program over the cause. Hence, many new wiki users often create pages that reflect the philosophy of the hierarchical line diagram rather than the philosophy of a flat, egalitarian network.

For example, imagine that medical researchers at universities throughout the United States were asked to swarm and pool their collective knowledge on multiple sclerosis in a common wiki space. If each university branded its wiki articles by creating its own page — for example, “Yale MS Research,” “Columbia MS Research” or “Harvard MS Research” — a consumer would need to peruse several standalone pages of information to develop a common picture of what the U.S. medical research community knows about MS. In this situation, content follows form.

A more effective model for knowledge management, particularly of an issue as broad as MS, would be to let form follow content. What this means in practice is that one main, organizationally neutral article about MS would be initiated in the common space. Each participant would integrate his or her knowledge into that article. Subtopics would be created as separate articles that intelligently link back to the main article. In this case, a user could visit a page titled “Multiple Sclerosis” and see contributions from an infinite number of researchers, freeing the user to focus on the content, not the structure.

In a scenario a little closer to home, how many pools of information would be generated if your agency’s acquisition, human resources and R&D organizations all made disparate wiki pages on the topic of “morale within the agency,” rather than just swarming on the topic together? This is a generic example, but it underscores the concept of working topically rather than organizationally in a wiki space. You need to resist the temptation of creating pages that organizationally nest broad topics.

Some topics may require department-only specialization. But why wall off the broadest range of talent? In a completely transparent environment such as a wiki, good and bad ideas will sink or swim based on merit alone, not on the credentials or background of the user. Why not let the whole enterprise give it a try? How many times in the history of innovation have ideas come from the people least expected to contribute? In all fairness, most of the time.

Third: Make RSS Your New Best Friend

Always look for orange icons. Really Simple Syndication pushes database updates to you. Instead of coming back to a Web site and hitting the refresh button to check for updates, a site’s RSS feed delivers the content to your aggregator. Aggregators are small client or Web-based applications that read RSS feeds. So, when you see an orange icon that says “subscribe” or “RSS,” click on it, ignore the eXtensible Markup Language code on the page and then paste the URL into your aggregator.

This is how you receive RSS feeds. Now it’s time for your organization to generate as many RSS feeds as possible to push information often hidden in databases out to the workforce. Server-side scripting programs can write and wrap database updates in XML for broad RSS consumption.

Fourth: Let Colleagues Act as Search Engines

Social bookmarking takes your favorite bookmarks out of the hard drive, where only you can see them, and exposes them to the entire enterprise using assigned keywords, called tags. Users throughout the enterprise can benefit from your knowledge by peering into favorite bookmarks that have been assigned keywords. In addition to viewing bookmarks with tags, users can subscribe to content that you bookmark through RSS feeds. This function basically pushes descriptively tagged bookmarks to users throughout the enterprise who have similar interests. You act as their personal search engine, and vice versa. Social bookmarking also cuts down on e-mail because it reduces the number of “hey, did you see this link?” messages.

Fifth: Take Advantage of Widgets Now and Mashups Shortly

Widgets are pieces of mobile Web code that add functionality to sites, blogs and social-networking profiles. Widgets are end-user friendly, unlike many current Web service manipulation offerings, such as databases and functions exposed over a network that require extensive knowledge of code.

Many form-based, drag-and-drop widget interfaces write code that you can cut and paste. For example, the eBay “To Go” widgets make calls back to the auction database (a Web service) and scroll bidding and auction data into a little box on your Web page or blog. As more databases move toward Web service exposure, end users — not Webmasters — throughout an organization will be able to pick and choose widgets that make them more efficient.

This type of easy-to-use, graphical manipulation is a microcosm of, and precursor to, more complex and powerful enterprise mashups. A mashup is an application that combines data and functionality from two or more applications to form a new customized application. This is accomplished through the manipulation of Web services and human creativity. To make mashups today, you need advanced knowledge of code. But easy-to-use, graphical manipulation for mashups is nascent in services such as Microsoft Popfly, JackBe and Yahoo Pipes and will soon become standard.

What will be important to note about widgets and mashups as they show up in your enterprise is that more than likely they were never studied extensively, were never formal requirements and were probably not heavily documented business cases that produced a demo. They will just appear through the creative genius of users throughout your enterprise. If they work and help you, then use them. If they don’t, the cost of development is low, compared with the cost of many large-scale, proprietary applications, so you can simply discard them and move on.

That’s the cost-benefit payoff of embracing Web 2.0.


Computer monitor: Corbis/Punchstock; hand turning page: Halfdark/Punchstock