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Management by Blog?

Management by Blog?> Sometimes the next big thing on the Net reshapes the online world (universal e-mail, a graphical browser for the Web); sometimes it evaporates upon contact with business reality (PointCast, anyone?). Wise companies explore new trends cautiously, and that seems to be what’s happening with weblogs.

Most of the companies I’ve observed using blogs are trying it on their customers before unleashing it internally on their staffs. The external need, apparently, is more pressing. Many businesses already have other systems in place for managing internal information, ranging from simple brown-bag lunches to overkill knowledge-management regimens. But companies are always looking for better ways to touch base with existing and potential customers, and there’s no hotter way to communicate on the Net than via a weblog.

Jason Butler, senior product development manager for regional job-search site, supervises two blogs, one for job seekers and one for human-resources professionals. “We opened up the HR blog because we want to be able to help people using our products,” Butler says. “It’s a tool to help them be better HR people, better managers. We’re on the Web all the time, learning about our industry. Using the blog, we can get that information out so the community can benefit from our work.” Similarly, the mission of the job-seekers blog is to keep the attention of people looking for new gigs by sharing interesting nuggets Butler and his colleagues have found on the Web.

There’s no crying need for a staff blog, Butler says. “We have an internal system for project updates, a page on the intranet. There’s no reason that couldn’t be a blog. Right now, we see blogs more to look out, to communicate with our customers, and to solicit suggestions from them.”

Currently the theoreticians are more excited about internal blogging systems than are the people who actually have to implement them. Earlier this month, on his widely read weblog, Biz Stone predicted that “blogging in the business community is about to be a big deal. When Google bought Blogger, a record skipped, the music stopped, and business folks turned their heads toward the blogging phenomenon.” Stone says he thinks the most immediate uses of blogging in corporations will be in the area of knowledge management: “Companies are going to want to capture people’s experiences so when they leave the company they don’t take everything with them.”

Stone acknowledges that these systems are not in place, but he maintains that they’re inevitable. “It’s only a matter of time before we have a blogging system that’s able to measure the intellectual climate of employees, that can get at the sorts of questions that managers need to know the answers to. What do people think of the new parking garage? What are smart people talking about? What’s on their minds? It’s a great, nonintrusive way of seeing what is happening in your organization.”

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Many employees might feel that such a system is akin to management eavesdropping on water-cooler discussions. The internal weblogs I’ve seen work are those that track an idea’s progress from offhand notion to fully matured proposal. I have seen three such blogs, always-on virtual whiteboards that have sped development and kept the status of projects clearer than they’d been before. They don’t attempt to capture an organization’s mood.

Such systems are not for every company, and they’re far from widespread. And such success depends entirely on an individual firm’s culture. If the company personality is too buttoned-up or secretive, a blog initiative will either fail to take off (there’s nothing lonelier than a blog that doesn’t get updated) or deteriorate into something unhealthy. The internal blogs that succeed will be safe, clean, well-lit virtual places in which diverse opinions are welcome and ideas — not people — are judged. Companies should always explore new ways of getting messages out and new tactics for fostering idea-exchange among the staff, but right now the blogging action is almost exclusively for external readers.

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