What Does Web 2.0 Mean to HR?

Have you ever heard a new acronym or buzzword and you tell yourself, hmm, guess I’ll have to read up on that, and then you actually do read up on it–I’m talking about some real, serious, research, mind you–and you find yourself scratching your head and wondering, what on Earth does that really mean?  I think there are many people asking themselves this about Web 2.0.  It must be something really big, after all we capitalize it: Web 2.0, vs. web 2.0.  Assigning it a version number makes it seem so definitive, as if there was a Web 1.0.  In this blog and for the next few blogs I’ll be exploring Web 2.0; I wish I could take an authoratative perspective on all things Web 2.0, but I’ll focus on a topic I know a good bit about, human resources, and how it’s being impacted by Web 2.0 technologies.

So what is Web 2.0?  Even the authors, analysts, and generally accepted experts on the World Wide Web, like Tim Berners-Lee, the guy who invented the Web (as opposed to the Internet at large, and I won’t venture into citing who invented that), do not agree.  Economists and business analysts might contend that Web 2.0 isn’t a defined technology, but more of an era: specifically, the innovations in Internet technologies that have been appearing only after the dot-com bubble burst of 2001 (implying that Web 2.0 might be leading to another technology bubble sometime in the future).  Marketers of course will cite Web 2.0 as being whatever their own products are; technologists are likely to cite their technologies as being what defines Web 2.0.  Some have tried to define Web 2.0 as being the result of the Internet being used as a platform (so what specific, definitive technology was introduced–and when–that made “Internet as a platform” possible where it wasn’t possible before?)

As far as I’m concerned, Web 2.0 is simply a wave of new Internet technologies, driven by a combination of maturing core technologies (like HTML) and innovation as people figure out new ways to use the Internet.  Note that I say Internet technologies vs. Web technologies, which means that “Web 2.0” is a misnomer.  Many people cite rich Internet applications (RIA’s – we love acronyms) as an example of Web 2.0, and while many of them (like Google Earth) communicate across HTTP, the web’s native protocol, they don’t necessarily have to.  Defining Web 2.0 as a generation (aka wave) of technologies would include RIAs, as they clearly didn’t exist in the first generation of Internet applications.  Unfortunately, though, there’s no clear delineation between these generations (such as the introduction of some defining technology), except perhaps (as cited previously) the dot-com bubble burst of 2001.  I’ve always liked to say that the Internet reflects real life (now there’s a topic for another blog), and just as it’s hard to tell when one real-life generation ends and another begins (at 43, am I a young Baby Boomer, or am I an old Gen-X’r?) it’s hard to say when the Web 2.0 era began.

The next logical question is, what applications are examples of Web 2.0?  I have 3 categories of Web 2.0 applications: social media, rich internet applications, and on-demand service applications.  I’ll discuss each in greater detail in my future blogs, but to wet your appetite to know what these technologies are and how they affect human resources (and to put myself on the hook for blogging on these over the next few weeks), here’s a brief overview:

Social Media: this encompasses social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace), mass collaboration sites (wikis, open source communities), and content sharing sites (Digg, Delicious, YouTube).  In general, social media facilitates people finding and communicating with one another, for sharing information, and for collaborating on any imagineable topic.  In the Web 2.0 era, managers of human capital should be aware that their workforce is the best connected, most communicative that has ever existed: whether you’re managing 10 employees or 100,000 employees, and whether you want them to or not, they’re connecting and sharing information with one another.

Rich Internet Applications: this new breed of software utilizes lightweight client applications (we used to call them “thin”) that can be installed easily, are usually self-maintaining and updating, and often provide access to a function based on a massive amount of data that can’t be distributed via conventional means.  While many great examples of RIAs sit outside a browser (like Google Earth and Second Life), they don’t have to: AJAX (Asynchronous Java and XML) enables RIAs running within a browser.  For managers of human capital, RIAs not only offer the opportunity to grant the workforce previously unavailable capabilities, but also will be increasingly demanded by a younger, Web 2.0 savvy workforce.

On-Demand Service Applications: few pundits are going to dispute my inclusion of social media and RIAs as Web 2.0 technologies, but I might be going out on a limb with On-Demand Service Apps, but by my definition of Web 2.0, the market has leveraged maturing technologies and innovation to make Software-As-A-Services (SaaS) and cloud computing not only practical, but in many cases more cost effective than their ancestor technologies.  Not only does this broaden the HRIS choices available to the human capital executive, but this also creates more opportunities for getting employees what they need and when they need it.

All three of these categories of Web 2.0 applications share another significant impact to managers of human capital: while they hold promise to make life easier for employees, they raise HRIS technologies to a new level of complexity.  Stay tuned for more.

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