New information sources, such as blogs and wikis, are extremely hazardous to corporate health.
I hate to be the one to throw cold water on the latest cool thing, but wikis and blogs — and all the other unwashed, untethered, so-called "new information" sources proliferating across the enterprise — are, all too often, just a lot of bunk masquerading as information.
Wow, it felt good to get that off my chest. Thanks, Intelligent Enterprise, for endorsing that position by publishing my column. And thanks to all those readers who think the mere act of publishing — on paper or on the Internet — lends credence to even the most ill-tempered or misbegotten opinion.
Despite this, we live in an information age that has gotten long on information and short on attribution and verification. I blame not the Internet so much as the gullibility of a society that has transferred a sycophantic trust in the printed word to a similar trust in the pixelated word. For too many people, if it's on the Internet, it must be true — common sense and access to the Internet's own powerful tools for verification notwithstanding.
For now, the effect is largely limited to the comic and the pitiful. I must get an e-mail message a day about some ridiculous piece of news, scandal or business opportunity that is either too absurd, too lucrative or just too stupid to be true. What's sad is how big the CC list is on the e-mail that delivers the latest in Internet silliness to my desk.
The many problems with these new information sources didn't trouble the enterprise as long as blogs and wikis lived outside the mainstream of the corporate world. But, with mainstream business use on the rise, it's time someone took aim at the problems of proliferating information that exists outside an expert-driven system of checks and balances.
Part of the problem is that self-publishing — which is really what wikis and blogs are all about — is extremely hazardous to corporate health. Some of these hazards are well recognized: Employee blogs are infamous for publicizing corporate secrets and intellectual property. But a lot of the problems are much more subtle: Misinformation in a blog about a publicly traded company could have a material effect on its stock, for example. Bad data from a blog could trigger events in an automated workflow that could stop a production line, trigger a security alert, or worse.
At the root of the problem is the fact that enterprises are proliferating document management systems, information dashboards and other data aggregation technologies that can assemble and display large quantities of information — with no ability to differentiate between fact and fiction. As blogs and wikis become sources, the risk that false information will be massively propagated by these automated systems grows exponentially.
We saw a similar effect at the dawn of the spreadsheet era: Early users would build exceedingly complex spreadsheets that would be allowed to run with no one ever verifying their accuracy. The inevitable runaway train of bad data wouldn't be noticed until some result was so out of spec that it had to be wrong. But, by then, the train would have already jumped the tracks.
In the end, blogs and wikis, like e-mail, have a lot of potential for both good and bad. But we tend not to question the source, and therefore the veracity, of information. This, in a sense, is how spam came to be so successful at cluttering our lives: It started from the fact that people actually believed their problems — sexual, monetary, health or whatever — could be solved by answering an anonymous e-mail that promised something too good to be true.
The integrity of all information — corporate or private — rests on the ability of users to judge the validity of the source. So heaven help us if no one calls the bloggers and wikites on the carpet when they mislead and misinform; degrading information on the Internet will globalize ignorance to an incredible degree. And the last thing anyone needs these days is more global stupidity. We have enough politicians contributing to that problem already.
Joshua Greenbaum is a principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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