Enterprise Blogging in Practice, Notes

In addition sparking off some thoughts about RSS security, the most recent Gillmor Gang got me to thinking that I should write-up my experiences with blogging behind the firewall, or “Enterprise Blogging” to use a trade-raggy phrase.

(I don’t like tooting my own horn, so pardon any tooting you hear. It’s not intentional.)

Setting Up the Blogs

A little under a year ago or so, I started experimenting with weblogs behind the firewall. I setup an instance of Pebble on one of my spare machines and asked a net-admin type to create an alias, “blogs” for the machine. So, folks on our intranet could type “blogs” into their web browser, and see a list of all the weblogs and their RSS feeds.

I didn’t ask anyone, or allocate time for it, I just installed it and told people in my group about it. This had worked out well 3 or so years ago when I setup a wiki, and at a previous company where I’d setup another wiki.

Eventually, I switched over to an instance of Roller, which had built in support for people signing up for their own accounts (Pebble didn’t, I had to manually create an account each time). Roller also has more editors and, so far, has been easy to extend with a JSP page here and there.

There’s executive sponsorship for the blogs (since last Fall), but there isn’t anyone whose job it is to take care, maintain, or develop them.

Current Use

Last I checked, we had about 80 people signed up for a weblog. A small percentage of those are “active” posters. Lots of people sign up for an account, make an initial post, and then never post again. A small subset of people post several times a day. And the largest segment of people post once a week or so.

At the department level, I wouldn’t say the blogs have been a wide-reaching, ragging success, primarily because people don’t post to them as much as you’d hope. However, for the people who do post to and read the blogs,
they’ve been very successful
.

What People Post

  • News stories in our industry and about our company.
  • Status of various test and performance clusters. So, instead of having to send out emails or answer phones all the time, you can say, “just subscribe to the performance cluster weblog. It’s always up-to-date with performance test status.”
  • Brain-storming about strategy, feature sets, and process.
  • Sharing customer visit/phone call notes.
  • The “I exist” posts. Like I said, a lot of people just post one initial, “I’m here!” post and then disappear.
  • Soliciting ideas/help. For example, one person recently posted the age old question, “when should I use wikis vs. weblogs?”
  • Off-topic posts, like pictures of stars (the space ones, not the Hollywood types) or what the frozen burgers in the freezer look and taste like.

Except for very early on (when I did them), other than the performance status posts, there hasn’t been a lot of “status update” posting. I thought that’d be the primary use of the blogs, but people haven’t taken to that use-case at all.

Problems with Blogs Behind the Firewall

The “problems” with “blogs for work” have been almost identical to the problems with wikis for work.

Most all of the problems have to do with getting lots of people to buy into, then read and post to the weblogs. There are, of course, some technical problems, but the bulk of them are related to pushing the blogs into the Plateau of Productivity…I don’t know if we’ve even reached the Peak of Inflated Expectations yet ;>

Here’s the problems I can think of, along with possible solutions, gotchas, lessons learned, and other notes that might be helpful to other people doing blogs behind the firewall:

Lack of time to maintain and work on blogs

Anyone in IT now-a-days is doing the work of 2-4 people. We’ve all got deadlines for other things. Finding the time to work on the weblogs, to do even the simplest 1/2 hour task, is extremely difficult. As such, technologically, the weblogs are pretty much frozen in the state I initially installed them in/at. For example, we need to move them to a better server, but there’s no time for that.

Unless you can get the time, the lesson learned here is to make the initial cut of your blogs install as ideal as possible. Get the beefiest server you can, the best blogging software, etc. If you’re lucky enough to find the time to set it up initially, more than likely, you won’t have time to improve it later. The biggest blogging software feature I’d suggest (other than the basics like RSS), is the ability for users to create their own accounts.

Holding Their Cards Close

Unless you’re working in an extremely dynamic, fresh-faced, Tom Peter’ed-up company, your co-workers aren’t going to be used to the concept of sharing information. Put another way, the idea of writing a blog post about what they’re working on, their ideas, or anything else is going to seem weird, foreign, and maybe even un-professional to your co-workers. People won’t post.

A small group of people, of course, will
“get it.”
So far, hoping for some sort of tipping point effect, I’ve just been trying to encourage and participate in the “discussions” that these people have: commenting on their posts, emailing them, or just talking to them in the hall. The corporate world is still in the early stages of the idea that blogging behind the firewall is natural and normal. Like I said, we’re probably not even at The Peak yet.

Hiding Out

On the flip-side of the adoption problem is the “oh shit, now people are actually going to read this!” problem. In the early, early stages of the blogging (when it was just me and 3-4 other people doing it), there was one person who posted very frequently, almost every day. But, as the blogs got more popular (when the executive sponsor sent an email to everyone in his department about them), that same person pretty much stopped posting.

They didn’t want to get in trouble for saying something.

I completely understand that. In any large organization, you have no idea who’s reading your stuff or what power they could wield to make your work-life difficult. It’s not quite that cynical of a situation, but, the point is, if you’re one of the only people posting, you realize how wide an audience you might have, and you start to get more cautious. Once more and more people start posting, creating more noise to “hide” in, this person will probably start posting more. I’m sure there are many other people in the company like that.

Too Much Noise

Another odd problem, considering the number of people posting, is that many readers have told me that there are too many posts from some people. For example, there are about 5-10 performance test status posts and news clippings posts a day. The front page of the blogs lists the most recent 10 (or 15?) posts, so it’s easy for those high frequency/quantity posts to cloud out others.

The solution to this is for readers to use aggregators: the can subscribe to feeds they’re interested in, and ignore the rest. Which brings up the next issue…

Aggregators Behind the Fire-wall

bloglines won’t work behind the fire-wall; and in it’s current state, you wouldn’t want it to. So, you have to find an alternative, which is pretty hard in the MS-Windows world. I’ve tried (in order) AmphetaDesk, SharpReader, Sage, and NewsGator Outlook Edition.

So far, I like the last one, NewsGator, the most: it integrates well with Outlook, it’s easy, and it doesn’t look weird. I’m trying to get the company to spring for some licenses, otherwise I might just buy one myself.

Sage is OK, but it’s not “independent” enough (you have to have Firefox’s history turned on, for example). SharpReader is actually a really good product, but I don’t like always having that separate application open. AmphetaDesk was just DOA for me.

As with any blazin’-hot technology, the problem with aggregators is getting people to know about them, and then use them. When I find the next slice of time, I’m going to use Camtasia (or whatever else) to record a screencast of installing and using NewsGator. I’ll put a link with big red letters on the main blogs page and hope people read it and think, “Ah-ha! That’s what I need!

There’s No Google Behind the Fire-wall

By far, the biggest problem with blogs behind the fire-wall is that there’s no Google behind the firewall. Without Google-quality search on your intranet (near real-time and full indexing, quick search results, page-rank, etc.), it’s extremely hard to find anything on the intranet let alone blog posts on relevant topics.

Search, from my seat, is a massive problem in the enterprise. If there’s one technology that indeed would make a difference to a company, it’d be getting good search behind the fire-wall. Companies have so much information on their intranets, but their employees can’t find any of it.

For the blogs, this means it’s hard to find posts and it’s harder to get discovered by people. Think of how many blogs or websites you’ve found when you’re searching for stuff in Google. That doesn’t happen on intranets: you have to know what you’re looking for, and where it is to “find” it.

My hope is to use Nutch to solve this problem. I’ve only had time to play around with it for a day, many months ago, but the results of that little proto-type were extremely positive. See below for another aspect of this problem when it comes to installing things like Nutch.

There is no Blog-o-sphere Behind the Fire-wall

The lack of good search behind the fire-wall is such a huge problem that I wanted to call it out on it’s own. But, it’s just a specific instance of a more abstract problem: all of the loosely coupled services “public” bloggers rely on don’t exist in the enterprise. There’s no Feedburner to keep track of your circulation; there’s no Flickr to easily host, share, and comment on pictures (diagrams) and other media; there’s no del.icio.us to keep track of bookmarks, and pursue other people’s bookmarks; there’s no Technorati, PubSub, or Feedster to connect together and surf through the blog-o-sphere.

You get the idea: there’s no services to help augment blogging.

Old Money Solutions

Companies like to spend thousands, if not millions, of dollars on the enterprise software they use. So, you might have sunk a ton of money into Vignette, and you’ve probably bought one of those enterprise licenses from Microsoft, so you’ve “paid for” SharePoint.

When all that money has been spent, it’s hard to all the sudden say, “oh, I guess we didn’t need to spend all that money…we can just install this (near) free software and get the same effect.” It looks bad, real bad, if you’ve convinced the purse-holder to part with some serious cash, and then you all the sudden decide you didn’t actually need to spend all that money.

So…when you suggest using blogs, you get answers like, “doesn’t SharePoint do that?” Or, “we’ve spent a lot of money of X already. Shouldn’t we use that?”

There’s really no way getting around this. You just have to install your blog system, and let it sell itself.

Uptime

The most annoying problem so far has been the care and feeding of the blogs box. Like I said, I just installed it on an extra box I had in my office. The machine isn’t the strongest horse in the stable. Every now and then, the box crashes, and I have to restart it.

This’ll happen with any software, but at a company, you usually have people who make sure your enterprise applications are running smoothly, restarting them if needed. (Indeed, those are exactly the people my company makes software for.)

When you’re just skunk-working blogs on your own, you’re those people. You’re the one who’ll need to restart the box when it crashes.

Luckily for me, many of the people in my group are as enthusiastic about blogs as I am. They help out, a lot. So, when I went on a two week’s vacation, I got three of them to be the “blog nannies”: if the box went down, they’d go fix it. And, in fact, they had to reset the box once.

What About Your experiences?

I’ve been kicking these ideas around in my head for some time. Lots of the people you see in my blogroll have too. I’m hoping that by sharing them, I’ll get other people to share similar experiences with blogging behind the fire-wall.

As I was listening to that Gillmor Gang episode, I realized how much of the kool-aid I’d drank. Everything they said about enterprise blogging seemed old hand and taken-for-granted to me. Or, as Brandon‘s described this feeling before, “Yup. Welcome to the party.” I don’t really even feel like there’s a need to sell the idea anymore: it’s just self-evident that it’s a good idea.

Of course, like I said, I’ve had a whole trash-can, if not more, of the blogging kool-aid. And I had it a long, long time ago. I know all this isn’t obvious, or even true, for huge amounts of people.

So, what are your experiences with blogging behind the fire-wall? What are your thoughts on how effective/productive/good it is or could be? Does any of this even make sense?

Followup: see
my follow up post
.

Join the Conversation

13 Comments

  1. Cote, my friend, that was an excellent article. I would also like to point out one of the central fears of adopting blogs in the work environment is another aspect of the, “oh shit, people read this, issue.” That is the fact that aside from people getting in trouble for what they write, they will also get in trouble for WHEN they write. If a deadline slips and a VP goes back and sees a bunch of blog-posts the week before deadline during peak hours, they might (stupidly) get a little pissed off that his “lazy development team” wasted time on all that blogging and not on coding or what-have-you. I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve noticed that my blogging tends to rise during peak stress times, it’s almost cathartic, and oftentimes makes me more productive in aggregate. But, as with other contrarian realizations, you probably don’t expect the Pointy-Haired Bosses to get it, so you just post to your offsite blog instead of the enterprise blog where you could actually post useful information.

  2. On the time aspact, I’ve killed off many posts-to-be due to my reluctance to spending time explaining the initial post. In other words, it seems that if the post isn’t done really well, there is a backlash of questions, which takes even more time to correct. This is maybe more of a management situation, since people seem to have a tendency to overanalyze information from management types. (i.e. create unintended meaning)In addition, the reality is that change in an established company isn’t quick. The blog system takes time to establish a trust base and move people into using it. The ROI sell isn’t as obvious as email, so there may be an even better technology/methodology before corporate blogging is well established.

  3. Great article: thanks for sharing.I share your concern about the news reader: if it isn’t Outlook than it is too much trouble to learn or use for the average user. Also, if it isn’t Oulook then you are facing issues about how you integrate with e-mail which is still the standard knowledge sharing tool.With one client we are looking at replacng their e-mail, document- and knowledge management, and user directory applications with one integrated solution, but that is too much change for most organizations.

  4. I’m looking for a technology recommendation: I’m trying to find .Net or Java software that will automatically notify employees via email when intranet content has been updated. The content is now HTML, but could be placed in a blog if necessary. The software would need to manage employee subscriptions to different content channels. All behind the firewall. Does anyone have any suggestions?

  5. Anonymous: I think you want to look at wiki or other CMS solution. I’ve just deployed the Java based Confluence wiki and it’s great. Flexible, but with comprehensive security so you can set it up the way you want. Any user can subscribe to be notified about updates, to the whole thing, just a group of pages or a single page. Those changes come in RSS feeds too. Plus is it 100 times easier to post/edit info on the wiki than to maintain an HTML version. Also, there is a blogging portion, where each “space” has it’s own blog that admins can post to.

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