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Technology

Business follows youth to new online world

Last Updated July 24, 2007

These days lots of adults turn to their teenage offspring for help with technology, whether it's fixing the computer or figuring out an MP3 player. It's a little more surprising for Donald Rippert to seek technology advice from people less than half his age.

Rippert is the chief technology officer for Accenture, a global consulting firm that advises some very big businesses on, among other things, how to use technology.

Not only is Rippert doing just that, though, but he even got up in front of a roomful of customers at Accenture's Global Convergence Forum in Rome this spring and told them what the kids have been teaching him.

Rippert hasn't been calling teens and 20-somethings into his office and asking them what he should do, but he has been looking closely at what younger people — the folks Toronto-based technology guru and author Don Tapscott has dubbed the Net Generation — are doing online. In online resources like Facebook, MySpace, Second Life and YouTube, popular with the Net Generation, Rippert sees ideas to improve collaboration and information sharing in businesses.

He has put some of those ideas into practice at Accenture, and he plans to do more.

What the kids are up to

Rippert looked at YouTube and wondered why a teenager can find an amateur video online quickly and easily, but tracking down a video of a corporate presentation in a business's archives is nearly impossible without the exact title. He picked up on the idea of allowing every user to tag content as the De.licio.us and Flickr websites do, creating a co-operative way of classifying material that benefits all users.

Earlier this year, Accenture launched a new global employee network that looks much like Facebook, the popular website where mostly young people share pictures and information about their interests.

The consulting firm is also working on a virtual training system based on technology like that of Second Life, in which members can create personal avatars to move around and interact in a virtual online world.

And Rippert's not alone.

David Jacobson, director of technology at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers in Toronto, says technology is driving a "sea change in society" toward what his firm calls ubiquitous participation. He adds that young people who have grown up with it will expect to use the tools of that participation at work.

"Collaborative communities" such as Wikipedia, MySpace and Digg are booming on the web, Tapscott told IT professionals attending the IT360 trade show and conference in Toronto in May, and young people accustomed to such technologies in their daily lives expect to use them at work as well.

Putting social networks to work

Wikis — web pages that anyone can edit — are becoming a valuable way of organizing corporate information, Jacobson says. Taking their cue from young people posting details of their personal lives on MySpace and Facebook, employees are becoming more inclined to share information with co-workers.

"Social networking when it comes to interaction and knowledge of the customer is very important," says Jacobson.

Social networking services like LinkedIn and Visible Path aim to do for business people what Facebook and MySpace do for young consumers. A growing number of professionals use these business-oriented social networking services to find employees, employers and business contacts.

'Social networking when it comes to interaction and knowledge of the customer is very important.'

— David Jacobson, PricewaterhouseCoopers

And it can work internally too. For instance, if Jacobson saw a way that PricewaterhouseCoopers might serve a particular company, he might want to contact that company. Rather than cold-calling the company, he would rather find someone within PwC who already has contacts there. An internal social networking system could help.

In January IBM announced Lotus Connections, described as a platform for business-grade social computing.

In talking to customers, IBM found they were "very frustrated by the ideas that don't get captured or repetitive work that gets done," says Carol Jones, an IBM fellow specializing in social software. Connections is supposed to change that by making it easy for employees to share unstructured information and find relevant expertise, blogs and "bookmarked" information when they need it.

Mark Suster and Tim Barker had similar goals when they founded Koral Technologies.

Both with a history of developing software to manage unstructured information for businesses, Suster and Barker were struck by research showing that business people find what they want on corporate networks only 42 per cent of the time, while consumers find information they want on the public internet 87 per cent of the time.

"We took our inspiration from all the best consumer sites," Suster says, and developed software that, when Salesforce.com acquired Koral in March, was released as Salesforce ContentExchange. It lets employees post unstructured information like sales presentations, videos and documents of all sorts, says Suster, now vice-president of ContentExchange at Salesforce. Others can add ratings, comments and tags, just as in consumer sites like Digg and the photo-sharing site Flickr.

It's all part of a reversal of the days when new technology appeared first in business and — sometimes — trickled down into consumer use.

Now businesses are looking to consumer technologies for ideas and realizing, Jacobson says, that consumers and employees are "one and the same person."

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