Weblogs, or blogs as they have become almost universally known, are undoubtedly one phenomenon for which the Noughties will be remembered. Numbers are hard to come by but there are at least 100 million live blogs and it seems that everyone from the Obama administration to the new owner of London newspaper Evening Standard, Alexander Lebedev, is at it.
Over the past few years, many CIOs have also taken to penning their own thoughts on emerging trends and technology. But, what is the true value of these blogs for the CIOs who write them and their readers? An immediate way of reaching people with a message? A reliable source of direct, instant information? Or just a soapbox for the blogger to exercise his or her ego?
Blogging evolved from the online diaries of the early 1990s. In 1993, The Forest Protection blog was set up by Glen Barry as a web-based commentary and campaign vehicle to save trees. It has been running regularly since 1995, making it the first and longest running continuous site in the blogosphere, according to Wikipedia. Since then, blogging has taken off in a big way as technological advances have made it easier for even resolutely non-technical people to maintain a regular web presence. As a result blogs can now be found on almost any subject under the sun, from fashion, food, music, entertainment sports and travel to technology, politics, business and finance - and a lot of other more obscure subjects too.
Although traditionally seen as gossip sites, as the decade draws to a close, blogs and their spin-off phenomena are becoming increasingly important as forums for breaking news around the world. It is claimed that so-called micro-blogging phenomenon Twitter, for example, was the first place to relay first-hand accounts of the Mumbai bombings.
Similarly, blogs written by CIOs seem to be providing an immediate environment for sharing not just news but new ideas and experiences - and that in turn is beneficial to both the bloggers themselves and their readers.
JP Rangaswami is managing director for Innovation and Strategy at BT Design, the part of British Telecom dedicated to designing, building and implementing IT and business processes. But he also authors a personal blog called Confused of Calcutta, and observes: "As the Cluetrain guys [the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual] said, markets are conversations. Blogs enable conversations to scale. They make the conversations persistent and searchable and shareable; they reduce misinterpretation and mistranslation; they encourage open questioning and debate, which leads to better trust and higher commitment."
Far from being a fad, the general view seems to be that CIO blogs, and blogs that are tuned to appeal to CIOs, will continue to flourish as more people pick up on their usefulness and bloggers build a platform that can lead to bigger profiles for themselves and their organisations.
Capgemini was an early example of a corporate blog. Its global CTO, Andy Mulholland, has contributed to it for the last three years and agrees that blogs will continue to blossom, but only in terms of quality, not quantity.
"There are too many to survive, and those that are still attracting more CIO readers are offering less of a quick personal comment but more of a structured online summary of what is happening across many blogs, websites and announcements," he says. "A real-time update complete with live URL links to the topics being quoted is very much a time-saver."
Steve Clayton, Software + Services lead at Microsoft and author of the Geek In Disguise blog, believes blogs will grow, but says that growth will be slower in the UK and Europe than the US where the demand for transparency is greater and louder. "I think they'll blossom as companies realise that, more and more, their brand and their products are being talked about by their customers and prospective customers on the web. They'll want and need to participate in that conversation and help shape it. Those customers will also want to know that the company is listening, engaging and reacting, or else they will deem that company to be out of touch with its customers."
But why do CIOs themselves blog? There are numerous benefits such as gaining useful feedback on comments, raising the blogger's personal profile and career opportunities, and maintaining an archive that acts as a CV or journal of record. However, one of the strongest incentives is the ability to communicate effectively with fellow CIOs and others in their industry or other communities - and maybe even with their own staff.
Richard Steel, president of the Society of IT Management (Socitm) and CIO of Newham Council, has found his blog one way of keeping staff and stakeholders up to date with what he is doing.
"Often, what staff see is ‘you're never in the office' and wonder what on earth you are doing with your time," he says. "I've tried other ways of keeping people informed, such as through team briefings, but this seems more effective."
With readership being diverse, Steel has written several versions of his blog - internally, for a significant core of employees who follow his blog, and as a Socitm president he is followed by a significant minority of members. (Most importantly of all, of course, his blog is syndicated through this website.)
He believes the greater following is from those people who want to keep tabs on him, including those who may regard themselves as competitors.
John Halamka, CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess and Harvard Medical School, has been blogging since October 2007 and has posted over 300 articles to date. His blog, Life As A Healthcare CIO, has around 5000 readers per week and is growing.
"Before blogging, I tended to answer the same questions over and over via email, phone calls, and speeches," he says. "By blogging, I save hours per day by answering complex questions once for every-one to read and reference. No approvals are required, I write whatever I wish every night [and] I never use my blog to promote products or companies; I simply record my personal experiences with technology [and there have been] no negatives thus far. To me, blogging is now an essential way to reach my stakeholders and is far more effective than broadcast email."
On the downside, while it's all very well getting feedback on your musings - saving time on meetings and emails and reaching new people you would never have met before - a blogger does have challenges. It takes commitment to keep a blog updated on a regular basis, not only in writing it but also in sourcing content that's strong and relevant to the reader. Things can also go much deeper than that.
According to BT's JP Rangaswami, "You have to be prepared to make yourself vulnerable, share partly-formed thoughts, say things that will not have universal -acceptance, which also means that you will receive strong criticism, even abuse. You have to be able to bear those risks."
Phil Windley, the CTO of e-commerce startup Kynetx, former State of Utah CIO and author of the Windley's Technometria blog, agrees: "There are people who try too hard to read between the lines and tease ‘secrets' out of the most innocent posts, and then worry about the consequences of the things they think you are thinking. You need to be comfortable with a more public life than you might otherwise have. Don't get too hung up on ‘what will people think' but do try to understand how what you write will be interpreted by various stakeholders, including customers. You need to love to write, or at least want to love to write."
And then there's the thorny issue of approval on the content, from the likes of company legal eagles, marketing types and the board. However, at least for now, most bloggers we spoke to do not seem to be under great pressure to include certain content, for example, promoting the goods of their employers, on their blogs.
Pablo Molina is the associate vice president of IT and campus CIO at Georgetown University and is free to write on his Georgetown Law CIO Blog without any organisational pressures or supervision.
"However, I do not write anything on my blog that I would not say in front of a live audience or discuss with a reporter," he adds as a caveat. "As an officer of the university, I have a duty to advance its interests and protect its reputation. Blogging is more appropriate for technology leaders who embrace a culture of openness and transparency. CIOs that choose to engage in blogging must have the discipline to keep their blogs up to date and to respond to readers' comments.
"On occasion, a sensitive comment may be better handled in a private manner rather than in a public forum. Either way, bloggers must always address reader comments."
Having checks in place is a prudent measure if, as is the case with Capgemini, several bloggers feature on the corporate website. "We have a corporate blogger code and our bloggers have so far respected our goals and ideals about blogging standards," says Andy Mulholland.
But what makes a successful blog? And just because other CIOs have found success in blogging, should you now become a blogger? Also, with so many blogs out there, is this creating a mountain of yet more information for already weary audiences to scale, or is there room for more?
Author of the View From The Bunker blog, Symantec distinguished engineer in the Office of the CTO, Guy Bunker, says: "I think we will see some more [blogs] start up and others shut down. It is good to know what the thinking of the individual is, providing it is useful and timely - if it is just marketing, then no-one will read it. If it is just sales, then no-one will read it. There is a definite law of diminishing returns - hours and hours writing a blog piece that isn't read, or just skimmed by a couple of people, is not worthwhile. However, some true insight into issues, processes and solutions makes for good topics to both write about and to read."
Like any means of publishing or newsfeed content, novelty is key. Regularly finding topical material that's relevant is essential if readers are to continue coming back. This means the blogger must be prepared to keep on top of trends and developments, not to mention the physical writing of the blog. All of this takes time and is a long-term commitment. There are also other considerations.
Peter Birley, director of IT at UK law firm Browne Jacobson LLP, started blogging in 2006 as an experiment in his quest to understand new technologies, and has recently opened a Twitter account that enables him to provide faster, shorter updates of what he is up to.
"You need an angle as there is a lot of competition," he says. "You have to market it as best you can, particularly as an individual, and decide on your marketing strategy. I don't accept advertising as I want to remain independent and don't want the extra pressure of regular content. I do it to suit me and hope I am giving something to the readers."
So, to blog or not to blog? Rather than being a passing fad of this decade, CIO blogs look set to continue playing an important communications role in today's business environment. They provide a useful source of information and forum to share ideas for the CIOs who blog and the people that read them. This readership is wide, ranging from other CIOs, internal staff and policymakers to customers, the media and opinion formers. It delivers numerous benefits to those who are prepared to put in the time in keeping it topical and regular. Also, feedback from readers can be used by bloggers to improve their working environment. Furthermore, because the blog can be written as the view of an individual, independent of their corporation, corporate approval is not always required and the blogger can share a truly open relationship with readers.
"Blogging can become a very effective tool for a CIO to talk to internal and external customers, says Microsoft's Steve Clayton. "It can become a sounding board; a place to right wrongs you see in the media - think of it as your right to reply - but it needs careful thought and considered execution. Please, please don't be tempted with the ghost-written option. It's failed for too many before you and is a high-risk approach. People want to hear from you, the CIO, talking the way you would talk to them if you were at the pub: openly, honestly and with humility and humour. If you can combine that with a real passion for your product or service, your blog will go a long way."
Bearing these thoughts in mind, if you find you can commit the time to finding content and regularly updating it, embarking on a blog would seem a good thing, assuming you are not of the faint hearted. Being prepared to face criticism, disagreement and the possibility of people trying to read between the lines in what you are saying is all part of the package.
Socitm's Richard Steel adds: "If you blog, you need to keep it up. Ideally, use graphics to make it visually appealing (I fail miserably). Think how to deal with comments and moderation [and] ensure you don't say anything that could get you in court or in trouble with other important stakeholders. It's a matter of record."
And, once up and running, check regularly to see if your blog is doing the job or else if it's a waste of time and resources. Symantec's Guy Bunker sums it up. "Gather statistics on site visitors. If no-one visits, then either change your style or cut your losses and get out of the game. Blogs take up valuable time; ensure that you use your time wisely."
A blogging primer
- Give your blog an interesting, relevant name so that search engines will identify it for what it is
- Use interesting headlines and opening sentences for the same reason
- Include pictures
- Be different so that you stand out
- Use lots of tags
- Use lots of links
- Communicate when you have a strong post through email, IM, blog responses and any other form you like
- Post frequently
- Be a networker in your community