Web 2.0 websites and their role in business

The founders of LinkedIn and Second Life tell us why Web 2.0 is redefining work-life balance


LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Second Life’s Philip Rosedale tell GB why old notions of work-life balance are redundant when it comes to Web 2.0

At the beginning of last year Rod Hall, head of communications technology research at investment bank JP Morgan (UK), admitted that his firm applied a ban on Web 2.0 sites. There’s nothing unusual about that, but Hall thinks employers are going to need an attitude transplant if they want to engage with post-recession realities.

There appears to be two main reasons for denying access to Facebook, Twitter or YouTube: a command-and-control approach to how staff manage their time and a bunker mentality when it comes to information. They’re convinced careless talk costs money, independence and intellectual property (IP).

Free agents

They are also aware that the more business-oriented sites, such as LinkedIn and Xing, are a good place to hang out if you’re looking for a job, but don’t want to put yourself in an agent’s shop window. A year ago, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman was at pains to play down that aspect, or at least to promote other qualities of his project. He didn’t want the site to be seen as a water cooler for his Silicon Valley chums, which, to be honest, it was in some danger of becoming in its early days. Now, he is not so sure.

“We are currently putting a lot of emphasis on how to enable jobseekers and what I call free agents to get work,” he reveals. “That’s because in 2009 there is going to be a high demand for these services. We are not worried if people join LinkedIn to trawl for jobs in their specialist area, because we know from experience that once they start using it they will discover that it’s about so much more than this. More and more people are essentially either free agents or acting as small businesses themselves.”

Two things motivate Oxford philosophy graduate Hoffman. “One is a desire to change the world, the other is to have the freedom to do so,” he says. “I think, in the case of LinkedIn, this is done by helping people to be more effective professionally.”

It’s the ‘freedom’ part that the corporates suspect. When they become aware of people spending time on Facebook or Twitter, they assume they are at best bringing their leisure time into the office, and at worst putting their company loyalty on the line. But what happens if you block their access?

“These days, most have 3G phones anyway. If people access these sites from their desktop, the IT manager can see what they are doing. But if they start using their BlackBerrys and iPhones they can’t,” answers Hoffman. “The company loses more control than it gains.”

Worse still, it cuts itself off from the oxygen of knowledge. Guy Kawasaki, tech investor and more recently founder of Alltop (www.alltop.com), which describes itself as the “digital magazine rack of the internet”, says the web has brought about the “democratisation of information”. The founder of virtual world Second Life (SL), Philip Rosedale, agrees, saying: “We’re seeing exactly the same thing with SL. The web is used relentlessly for information-sharing purposes.”

More positivity

The UK is more negative about social networking platforms than other European countries, with 35% of British companies banning them, according to a recent survey from mobile operator 3. The same study reports that employees tend to cite work-life balance as their reason for opposing the ban. If that’s true, then the problem runs all the way from the top floor to the shop floor. As Kevin Roberts, Saatchi and Saatchi’s global chief executive, puts it: “We don’t have work-life balance these days, we have work-life integration.”

Not everyone gets the point of SL, where virtual infidelity recently led to a real-life divorce. “SL is a different way of presenting information than the text-link-text we are given on the internet,” says Rosedale, “and it is a more powerful method because it is visual and experiential, so less dependent on language.” But the key advantage of SL, according to Rosedale, is that it presents information in an inherently social way. “In the next decade, virtual worlds will be the most common way for human beings to consume information,” he asserts.

All the same, most of us probably wouldn’t like our staff to spend time in any virtual world while at work. That said, Unilever is using SL as a marketing tool, IBM has held graduate recruitment fairs there, visitors to Diageo’s ‘island’ can create their own bars as part of a targeted brand-awareness campaign, and BT has created an ‘American Inventions’-style area where employees can pitch new ideas to senior management. Second Life is also developing 3D applications to help businesses hold virtual meetings, train key staff or run projects without the real-world infrastructure costs. It allows a small business to think and act like a large one.

Desire to connect

The recession is going to throw up a lot more of Reid Hoffman’s free agents. LinkedIn has 35 million users, 7.5 million of them in Europe, and adds a million every 18 days. That level of growth is matched by a growing sophistication in the way it serves business needs, and it has recently added tools for sharing PowerPoint information, creating a company ‘buzz’, and tracking the most recent activity from Twitter, Hoffman reveals. He laughs when hearing about some of the companies that proscribe Web 2.0 activity. How long can it be before the users themselves overwhelm that kind of thinking?

It’s no longer just a case of preference or style. It’s been a short step for the larger corporations to move from inter-departmental research projects to collaboration with the most unlikely partners, even competitors, as product development cycles are compressed and the point of IP security is largely lost. Thorsten Vespermann, communications director at online business hub XING, believes that virtual networking will only ever be part of the story, though.

“In Europe, we aren’t as scattered as they are in the USA,” he says. “We’ve had more than 22,000 groups and networking events, and I’d say XING has developed from being just a contact platform to a web interface for business professionals around the world.”

With a 53% increase to 6.5 million users in the first nine months of 2008, at the same time increasing its margin, Xing is growing spectacularly, and Vespermann expects that to continue. “It’s not just the activity around the job market that stimulates people’s desire to connect, it’s also because it enables them to surmount national boundaries and corporate silos in the quest for innovation, speed to market or project optimisation.”

Events like these create promiscuous groups of people, free agents, entrepreneurs and employees in businesses of every size, just as social networks do online. If work-life balance presupposes a redundant distinction, then the gap between ‘social’ and ‘professional’ has closed. For small businesses, this means an opportunity to glean ideas from an unlimited field and adapt, develop and apply them to their own growth objectives.

So hands off the internet. Democratising information doesn’t threaten your ability as a leader to set strategy or to protect legitimate interests. On the contrary, it allows you to fish more effectively in your own pond and everyone else’s too. Guy Kawasaki’s final tip is ultra gnomic, but well worth following on his blog: “Use Twitter as a twool!”

Guy Kawasaki’s Ten Tiny Things Every Small Business Owner Should Do In 2009

  1. Act like a prospective customer and call your company to see how the phone system and receptionist treat you.
  2. See if your website has a ‘Contact us’ section. If it doesn’t, add one. Ensure it has a street address.
  3. Send your company an email asking for customer support and see if someone responds.
  4. Answer customer support calls or emails for a day.
  5. Go out on a sales call with your salespeople and a service call with your service people.
  6. Read the documentation or manual that your company provides. Extra credit: See if you can do this without reading glasses.
  7. Pretend that you lost the documentation or manual that came with your product or service and try to find it on your website.
  8. Register your product or service including finding and reading the serial number of your product. Extra credit: See if you can read your serial number without reading glasses. Extra extra credit: If you use a Captcha system for registration, see how many times it takes to get the word right.
  9. Add a signature to your email.
  10. Join Twitter and then search for your company name, your product, your competition’s name or product name, or market sector terms from your business.

 

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