Blogs in the Workplace
By WILLIAM O'SHEA
For Nicholas Tang, the deluge of work-related e-mail messages became overwhelming. "It got to the point where I was getting hundreds of e-mails a day, sometimes more than a thousand," said Mr. Tang, director of operations at Community Connect, a company in New York that operates AsianAvenue.com and other online communities with an ethnic focus.
For several years Mr. Tang viewed this daily surge of e-mail messages as an unpleasant but necessary part of his job managing a team of eight engineers. Then, a few months ago, he began using an alternative to e-mail, a Web log.
Web logs, or blogs as they are known, are a type of frequently updated online journal, often featuring excerpts from news articles and links to other blogs. So far, Web logs are best known as a medium for communicating with the general public — like the blog by the noted journalist Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com), which is devoted to culture and politics, and sites like the Veg Blog (www.vegblog.org), which is about all things vegetarian. In the corporate context, some chief executives, for better or worse, have adopted blogs as a way to share their personal wisdom with the wider world.
But a growing number of businesses, government organizations and educational institutions are using Web logs to manage and improve the flow of information among employees. These blogs, not accessible to the public, typically allow many people to contribute entries that can be read by others in the organization.
It may be too soon to tell whether the corporate blog will emerge as a genuinely useful tool for business communications or simply another way for bores and blowhards to blather. But a growing circle of adopters, like Mr. Tang, swear by their blogs.
At Community Connect, Mr. Tang's engineers use a service called LiveJournal to post updates about tasks like fixing server computers or configuring software. Hitting the upload button sends the text to a private site, viewable by the authors and their managers, including the date and time of the postings and, often, links to relevant Web pages.
"When I want to know something I check the Web log," Mr. Tang said. "It saves me the trouble of e-mailing people or yelling across the room to get a status update."
Mr. Tang has also used blogs to coordinate group projects, like the recent process of interviewing job candidates for a programming position. The various people at the company who spoke to each candidate posted their comments on a password-protected Web log.
"One person wrote that a candidate was `quiet,' " Mr. Tang recalled. "There was a whole discussion about this. `What does that mean? Is it a bad thing? Does it mean he's antisocial?' There was more back and forth with the interview process. It helped everyone to get on the same page more quickly."
Because of their informal nature, blogs can lead to digressions. Shirley Palma, a Community Connect systems administrator, said that after meeting one job candidate, a woman posted this message on the interview blog: "I think he's so cute! I want to take him home!"
Ms. Palma noted that "it was in a motherly way; she didn't mean anything by it." But the remark prompted a male colleague to blog back, "I think if I said that it would be considered sexual harassment."
The cute candidate ended up getting the job, having been praised by others on the blog for being easygoing and an apparently fast learner. "We interviewed lots of candidates," Ms. Palma explained. "Can you imagine remembering 10 people after the fact? The blog helped keep track of everyone."
Google, the provider of Internet search services, has become a big user of blogs for communication among its employees and managers — a result of the company's acquisition of Pyra Labs, the creator of the Blogger Web log service, earlier this year. On one internal blog, called Google Love Notes, the customer service staff posts thank-you notes from users. One is from a woman who nursed her sick dog back to health after researching the illness on Google; the posting includes a photograph of the healed dog frolicking in a stream. Another came from a woman who was able to find a long-lost love through Google — and who happily reports that she wound up agreeing to marry the man's brother.
"It's a good pick-me-up," Jason Shellen, a Blogger manager at Google, said of Love Notes.
Less relevant to the corporate mission was a posting on a blog operated by Notiva, a Silicon Valley software company, by a staff software designer who posted photographs from his vacation to France. Another employee posted the official rules for foosball.
But Tim Dawson, Notiva's director of system architecture, says he does not mind if people have fun with the blogs, because he sees how valuable the medium can be for sharing information about software bugs and fixes. "We went from 11 people to 50, and that all happened in the space of 15 months," Mr. Dawson said. With the blogs, he said, new employees "can come in and see what's out there."
The telephone and wireless giant Verizon Communications uses a Web log to collect news and intelligence about the industry and competitors. "We used to spend lots of time e-mailing articles around but not keeping track of them," said Sean Byrnes, the lead architect on Verizon's project for Wi-Fi wireless Internet access. His group now consolidates such information in a series of topic-specific blogs.
But opening a pipeline to comments from employees can produce a torrent of information, essentially defeating the purpose of the tool. "You reach information glut very quickly," Mr. Byrnes said.
And the free flow of information does not necessarily promote communication, says David Jarvis, an analyst at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I. The center is running an experimental program using Web logs to explore how naval technologies can be applied to homeland defense. The blogs are meant to disseminate news, project updates and new ideas.
"People are going to the blogs every day as a source for news," Mr. Jarvis said. But, he added, "I am disappointed in the tool," because the hoped-for exchange of ideas among departments has not spontaneously developed. "You need specific goals," Mr. Jarvis said.
Typically, though, such experiments are not expensive to mount. LiveJournal's blogging service costs companies $25 a year. Corporate editions of Manila, a Web log program produced by Userland Software, costs $899 a server computer, but one server can accommodate hundreds of people. TeamPage, a corporate Web log program offered by Traction Software, begins at $10,000 a server, but small-group versions cost much less.
As business interest in Web logs grows, more companies are moving into the market â€” or expanding into it, in the case of software developers that had focused on personal Web log tools but are now aiming at teams and organizations. One such company, Six Apart, plans to begin selling its corporate product in the next few weeks. And 20six, a British company, plans to introduce blog software for teams in the fall.
Time will reveal how many Web log software companies the market can support. But corporate blog enthusiasts like Mr. Tang, of Community Connect, are convinced that the medium is here to stay.
"People are starting to use Web logs to archive data that would have otherwise been lost," Mr. Tang said. He noted that much of the company's internal communications had been via instant messaging -- and was lost as soon as the correspondents closed their chat windows. Now, though, employees are starting to post transcripts of relevant discussions on the Web logs, he said.
"It's not just making life more convenient," Mr. Tang said, "but actually giving us something new we didn't have before."