How to master the Web 2.0 arts
In the third of our four-part guide to collaboration, Martin Courtney looks at how IT professionals should go about acquiring the right skills to take advantage of Web 2.0 technologies
The University of Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education uses Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis and social networking as part of its training programmes
Few would dispute the assertion that internet-based collaboration has transformed the way many people, particularly the younger generation, interact with their peers.
But while business interest in collaborative technologies such as IP-based unified communications (UC) and videoconferencing is firmly established, many IT managers are still wondering how to harness the productivity-boosting power of Web 2.0 tools such as instant messaging (IM), social networking sites, wikis, blogs, podcasts, RSS, mashups and widgets.
Demand for such innovation seems assured. Analyst Forrester Research suggests that global enterprise spending on Web 2.0 technology will top $4.6bn (£2.3bn) by 2013, up from about $764m (£387m) in 2008.
But before they can expand their use of collaborative technology, businesses will have to attract the relevant skills to enhance their existing web applications and develop new ones – skills that are not necessarily readily available or formally defined.
Figures from online vacancy tracker ITJobsWatch indicate that Web 2.0 skills are much in demand, with average salaries rising by 5.4 per cent in the three months ending 30 July 2008 compared to a year earlier, with the number of listed vacancies more than doubling. Demand does not necessarily reflect supply, however, and there is evidence to suggest there are simply not enough people with the relevant skills to fill the vacancies.
“I think that most companies lack the skills to add internet collaboration tools to their environments, particularly those that have traditionally focused on back-end processing rather than front-end applications,” says Kishore Swaminathan, chief scientist at global consulting giant Accenture.
“They are beginning to hire younger people who have the skills, but they still need the corporate blessing to do something with them. In the short term they usually hire some geeks from a company that has three people to help develop the applications.”
A survey of 100 network and application professionals conducted earlier this year by Psytechnics, a company specialising in voice and video readiness assessments, found 60 per cent of UC experts did not believe there were enough skilled technical staff to deal with the expected demand in UC deployments.
Of the people Psytechnics questioned, 74 per cent said UC requires an IT operations workforce that is knowledgeable in both networks and voice and video applications, rather than one or the other. An individual with such combined skills is a rare breed, and that cuts the available pool of labour further and means additional training for potential candidates is more likely to be needed.
While training on UC and videoconferencing platforms is tied closely to specific vendor software, and usually delivered in tandem with system implementation, instruction in how to use and get the best from Web 2.0 technologies is offered by a small but growing number of specialised IT training organisations and academic institutions.
Steve Boneham is consultant trainer for Netskills, a training and staff development service based at the University of Newcastle and focused primarily on the academic community.
“We have seen renewed interest in all things internet as a result of Web 2.0 technologies, but the kind of training people are asking for is less about understanding the issues and applications involved, and more about effective communication and why and what is effective, rather than how to do it,” he says.
Boneham has seen a lot of interest in podcasting, which perhaps reflects the fact that Netskills deals primarily with members of the academic community who are always looking for new ways of disseminating information to their students.
“It is a new course area, so was always going to be a bit more popular, but we have noticed a lot of demand for podcasting – which is surprising because it is almost an old technology for Web 2.0, though people ask for videocasting as well,” he says.
Accenture’s Swaminathan, meanwhile, says the quantity and breadth of Web 2.0 training available to IT professionals has to improve if companies are to successfully implement collaborative projects based on new technologies.
“I have not seen much training available at all, and I think that is curious,” he says. “In Accenture itself, we have had both success and failure stories, in the large-scale use of wikis for example. If you look at both outcomes and ask what is the differentiating factor between the two, it is employees having a reasonable level of training and knowledge of what the company expects to get out of the application on a day-to-day basis. In any large group, there are always people who are self-taught.”
Web collaboration skills are most often acquired on an informal basis by people looking to expand their social and personal horizons. This trend could stem from the fact that Web 2.0 technologies have not yet established a firm foothold in corporate thinking, and few IT professionals see the point of acquiring specific knowledge that may or may not be needed.
“I think that people are interested in learning Web 2.0 technologies to further their career to a certain extent, but it is primarily down to personal interest and making their lives easier and more productive. I’m not sure that it is about promotion, more about working smarter,” said Boneham.
Dave White is senior manager for development at Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (Tall), an e-learning research and development team based at the University of Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education. Tall employs a range of Web 2.0 tools, including blogs, wikis and social networks to help deliver a range of training courses over the web.
White points out that as people become more familiar with using Web 2.0 tools in learning environments, they will quickly pick up the relevant skills that will then be transferred to their working environments by osmosis.
“If you understand how these things work, whether you are in the library, study or at work, you can do whatever you want with that. People end up with informal quasi-social clusters supported by Web 2.0 tools in both student and professional environments,” he says.
“Web 2.0 skills will not remain in institutional pockets in quite the same way as in the past – people moving jobs are likely to stay in contact with the people they used to work with, for instance, and these distributed networks of expertise can help collaboration in all environments.”
All of which may stand those online e-learners in good stead in terms of future employment prospects. According to Forrester, the use of wikis, widgets and mashups as collaboration tools in call centres is expected to increase as more companies outsource IT services to third-party organisations based in other countries and regions of the world, for example.
For the moment, most business Web 2.0 development is centred on applications intended for internal communications. But IT managers should expect the source of demand to change during the next few years, says Forrester.
Marketing and sales departments will start to realise the benefits of using collaborative technologies to engage a wider audience of customers and business partners, particularly as young people who are used to Web 2.0 collaboration in social settings mature and begin to expect the same benefits from business communication processes.
“Web 2.0 tools will be defined by commoditisation into other enterprise collaboration software during the next five years,” says Forrester analyst Oliver Young. “It will eventually disappear into the fabric of the business, despite the major impacts the technology will have on how businesses market their products and optimise their workforces.”
Top five collaboration technologies
Email continues to be the collaborative application of choice, having established dominance in both business and consumer environments during the past decade. Even in scenarios where it makes sense to use more nimble technologies such as instant messaging for the same communication purpose, people often prefer to send emails. Recent legislation determining how email messages should be stored and for how long ensures that written records of communication sessions are retained and can be used as evidence in court.
Use of voice over IP, unified messaging (voicemail, fax, email, instant messaging), webconferencing, presence and whiteboarding is now being packaged into single collaborative platforms that offer all or some of those features on desktop PCs, with back-end links to corporate IP telephony and email systems.
The emergence of faster, more reliable broadband links in every part of the globe, combined with improved compression technology, has made videoconferencing a workable solution for the first time for many companies. Vendors such as HP, Cisco and Polycom have developed
sophisticated corporate telepresence systems designed to create virtual meeting spaces.
Social networking sites have exploded onto the web during the past few years, with millions of people using them to post and distribute their own content and keep in touch with peers. IT managers have started to take notice, with some companies now using social networking sites as a vehicle to preview, advertise or promote their own wares.
Encompassing a range of web collaboration and internet applications, such as wikis, blogs, podcasts, videocasts, RSS feeds, mashups and widgets, so-called Web 2.0 technologies widely used for personal collaboration and communication are now attracting a lot of interest from firms looking for ways to exploit their advantages.