Beware the 'Web 2.0' brigade

They know all about “new media” and how to “make Web 2.0 work for your organisation“. Their business cards carry the titles of “visionary” and “strategist” and they claim they can revolutionise your enterprise, bring it into the 21st century and disambiguate this confusing information age for you. They can do this all because they have a blog, once spoke to some guy who works at Google and knew about wikis before you did. They’re the Web 2.0 Brigade – and they’re coming soon to a boardroom near you.

Now I’m not simply going to advise you to show them straight to the door because veiled in the fog of Web 2.0 nonsense are some legitimate consultants who can offer you real value. I’m not writing off corporate blogs, team wikis and the likes either. What I’m doing is issuing a warning to unassuming business people; be careful what you’re caught paying for when it comes to the new Web, and bear in mind that a lot of what these ’Web 2.0 strategists’ (or whatever) are telling you is really just a statement of the obvious. You’ll find many of these “visionaries” have shallow technological and business backgrounds; they’ve merely figured out how to do something simple but uncommon and are planning to get your money for repeating the exercise.

Laying some of the sarcasm aside, I am regularly asked genuine questions from business people who want to know more about the new wave of the Web and how it applies to their business. They get approached by “new media strategists” and “Web 2.0 visionaries” or they’ve simply heard about ‘Web 2.0’ and they want to know what everyone is on about. My intention with this post is to partially answer their questions, and also to vent my spleen at the people taking them for a ride. I may sound condescending to the latter, in which case… good.

First things first – “Web 2.0” is a farce. “Web” is short for ‘World
Wide Web’ – a layer of functionality on the Internet that makes websites possible. It uses a system called hypertext to serve content and facilitate file transfer. On a technological level it hasn’t changed much since the early nineties. The naming convention hinted at by the “2.0” part of the farce suggests that a second release or revision of the system has since been implemented, which is bollocks.

The term “Web 2.0” was coined by Irish media mogul Tim O’Reilly in an attempt to explain the next wave of usage of the Web. Mr. O’Reilly’s strange nomenclature is an inaccurate description but has been cast in popular use and, as such, is no big deal. But those in the know usually don’t bother giving new Web usage a name, because there isn’t anything special about it and they don’t want to mislead you. The Web is still just the Web.

Since the beginning of the Web in 1989 it has been possible to make your own website, build online social networks and embed supported media – it just hasn’t always been easy. What Myspace, Youtube, Facebook, Blogger and other new Web services do is make it possible for anyone to achieve things that nerds have known how to do for ages. Blogging is a prime example of this and only hit the big time as soon as it became easy for your average Joe to do it. Nerds have had weblogs (‘blogs) for decades.

Of course bandwidth constraints made it difficult to transfer video in the old days, for example, but at a technological level the Web wasn’t really that different in 1992 from what it is today. Protocols have been progressed, mark-up languages have been revised and improved, new programming languages have been introduced – but the Web remains. We’re just doing things with it that haven’t been done before.

So what does this mean for business? As with any new methodology or opportunity, businesses need to assess the developments, decide as to whether or not it is possible to derive value, and implement the required bits and pieces when and where it makes sense to do so. And when choosing partners to help them unlock the potential value from new Web related solutions, I would recommend speaking to the same nerds who have been doing this stuff for over a decade… or at least someone who has achieved more in the arena than running their own blog and knowing how to install basic web-server software for you.

You’ll find a lot of the nerds who really can offer you value from ‘Web 2.0′ working at IBM, for one. Ask them about Lotus Mashups, Connections and Quickr. There are also many open source tools available from wiki software to content management systems that offer a low barrier to entry, so long as you’re working with someone who can offer your business effective post-deployment support and perhaps also certification that suggests that they know what they’re doing.

Lets drill deeper and move away from the ‘Web 2.0′ name and refer to corporate blogging, collaboration, team facilitation, service orientated architecture, software as a service and other modular components of the new Web wave with names that actually make sense and that can be combined into effective solutions. If we’re going to formulate an effective strategy, then lets talk about what these mean for your business and how they can be used to drive goals. Corporate blogging may or may not make sense for your business depending on what you’re trying to achieve, just as a hosted CRM solution may make more sense than an out-sourced SaaS environment.

An easy way to identify a member of the ‘Web 2.0 Brigade’ is that all they want to talk about is deployment, and they ignore the strategy discussion. Have they asked you about your business and the differentiators that drive it? Do they even know what more conventional methodologies such as enterprise resource planning or customer relationship management entail and how these need to be incorporated into any solution going forward? Really?

Of course there are mere bloggers and casual fans of the new Web phenomenon out there who do get this stuff in the context of business – but as a business owner myself I like going with tried and tested expertise, only applying risk when I need to. And I won’t work with a consultant who doesn’t understand my business and what makes it tick, because technology isn’t worth anything unless it is aligned to business imperatives. This is as true for corporate blogging, social networking and collaboration tools as it has been for CRM and ERP.

So the next time the ‘Web 2.0 Brigade’ come calling ask them about their track-record in the industry, how they know what they know and why they do what they do. The ‘brigade’ will talk your ear off about “Web 2.0″ but won’t be able to tell you much else. You’ll soon realise that the same things that made consultants good ten years ago still makes them good today; a genuine understanding not just of the solutions, but also of your business and how the two can come together effectively. They probably won’t use the term “Web 2.0” much either...

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.