reality check: blogs, wikis and forums are not new
Apparently blogs, wikis and forums are the 'next big thing' for corporate and educational institutions. People talk about these tools 'changing the way they interact with clients' as if they are some kind of silver bullet which will put them in web nirvana. I'm sure these same people work in a Paperless Office, too. Two points spring to mind...
- These things are not new, they're just new tools for old tasks.
- The audience has been using them for ages, you're just playing catch-up.
Let's have a reality check about blogs, wikis and forums. None of these things are new, it's just the way they are created that's different. The tool might be new, but the purpose and result are the same as always. If you're suddenly 'interacting differently' or 'communicating differently', then a little bit of honest self-evalution will probably reveal that previously you weren't communicating or interacting at all.
Blogs are just linear websites, like every other news or press release page ever published. If your organisation has started giving out friendlier or more readable content via a blog, then hooray for you - but you could have done that without the blog. Chances are you used to have a bland, boring website with nothing to attract anyone to the site unless they had no alternative but to use it.
Meanwhile, your users have been off publishing their own blogs. These days they know exactly how much effort is required to post information to the web. They expect you to be as open about your business as they are about their lives. They may give out 'too much information' but that doesn't change their expectations.
Forums are just newsgroups. In fact, no matter how you slice them, forums/newsgroups have been around since the internet was 'new' at DARPA. Even the more modern web forums are old news, having flourished since your average newgroup was spammed into oblivion. The only thing that has changed is that large organisations have decided to host their own forums, instead of leaving it to third party sites. Users have been discussing your organisation whether you like it or not, on their own servers.
Wikis feel new, but they're not. Wikis are just collaboratively-maintained websites, they are just bodies of information no different to an encyclopedia or a simple newsgroup FAQ. In a more corporate environment you might look at your network drive or intranet full of corporate documentation. These documents are maintained by a group of people, all of whom can edit, update or delete information. A wiki is just a web-based information management tool which strips away all the hype surrounding knowledge management.
Not surprisingly, this open approach to information management scares the hell out of senior management; since they have an illusion of control over their own organisation's body of knowledge. It seems insane to let 'anyone' edit 'anything', even though that's often the reality of daily operations. Also unsurprising is the fact that daring and ambitious groups of users have already had great success with high-profile projects like the Wikipedia.
So where does this leave us? Those three silver bullets turned out to be websites. The real difference is they have inspired people to communicate in different ways. What large organisations should be thinking about is not whether they need a blog, but whether they need to communicate regularly with their customers (via a blog). Perhaps their customers want a place to talk to other people who bought the same product (in a forum). Perhaps their staff need a single source of information that anyone can update, to make it easy to keep accurate information (via a wiki).
It's all about communication and knowledge. You won't communicate any better just because you have a blog. You will communicate better if you have a real need to do so; you have real information to give out; and you can make it interesting to the target audience. The old saying is true: the medium is not the message.
If your message is good, it'll work just as well on a 'website' as it will on a 'blog'.