Enterprise RSS must not die

Marshall Kirkpatrick over at ReadWriteWeb has said that enterprise RSS is dead. Brad Feld, an investor in Newsgator, disagrees and thinks that RSS is alive and well. There’s a spirited discussion in both posts’ comments that’s worth a scan.

I was talking about enterprise RSS only yesterday, and my experience with it has been that it’s nigh on impossible to get RSS readers rolled out in my clients’ companies (except the really small ones, and they tend to go for Google Reader or something else that’s free, not enterprise). Only two clients over the last four years have actually piloted an RSS reader internally.

One client tried Newsgator, but didn’t like it. I wasn’t privy to that conversation, so all I know is that the feature set wasn’t adequate for the money. That was a couple of years ago, so that doesn’t tell us much about the situation now. The other client also tried Newsgator and the jury was still out at the time my engagement finished, but given that their budget was subsequently slashed to £0, I’m guessing that they too didn’t end up with an enterprise-wide installation.

Of the others, we often didn’t get as far as discussions about cost or features, because the response from IT was a flat “No”. There just was no political will within the company to even investigate the possibility, let along start assessing possible tools. I’ve also had reports of companies saying “Yes, we’ll think about it, but a code review might take upwards of a year”, which is so close to “No” that you couldn’t get a piece of paper between them.

So what’s going on? Certainly it’s not that RSS is a difficult concept to explain. I explain it all the time, and whilst it helps to be able to draw diagrams for people, when you say “Instead of you going round to all those websites you check on a daily basis, the content just comes to you” most people understand. And I don’t believe the people who complain about RSS being a three letter acronym either – I just don’t think people are that stupid.

The Web 2.0 evangelists within enterprise that I’ve known have all been really smart people who totally understand the usefulness of RSS, but often they don’t have the political capital to get things done properly. Often they are working with no budget, and have a hard enough time protecting basic tools such as blogs and wikis from senior managers who’d prefer everything to be in SharePoint instead. They don’t necessarily have the heft to get a new tool rolled out company-wide.

Often, RSS readers are seen as a tool that might benefit a minority of people (the evangelists themselves) and the wider uses across the business are either not discussed or not recognised. This gives IT, or other sections of management, the excuse they need to shut down any sort of RSS reader project. Of course, RSS is not just for edge cases, but a useful tool for anyone who has to deal with lots of incoming information, from marketing to competitive intelligence to research to development… the list goes on and on. Yet if it can be characterised as just for a minority, it can be side-lined and binned.

The Catch-22 attitude – if a technology isn’t used by the majority then it’s not going to be rolled out company-wide, meaning that only a minority can ever use it – is endemic in IT these days. I know that’s a comment likely to bring the IT defenders out of the woodwork, but so often I see IT departments whose only mission is to keep the network secure. Obviously that’s important, but IT is also suppose to be about enabling business, and when IT starts to get in the way of important advances in business technology, hard questions should be asked.

But we can’t lay the blame entirely at IT’s door – it’s more complex than that. It’s partly to do with the immaturity of social tools in business, and the propensity for evangelists to fight on alone instead of seeking external expert advice to bring in an ally. It’s also partly to do with the anti-technology culture that I see rife in some British businesses. It’s partly to do with management’s reluctance to see social tools as a suite, preferring to look for a “quick fix”, which of course doesn’t exist, or engaging in tech tokenism: “Oh, we have a blog, we get 2.0.”

Yet I am also rather worried by the fact that Newsgator seems to be the only kid on the block these days. There are a number of different blogging platforms, with WordPress and Movable Type being the main contenders. Several wiki platforms, including Socialtext, ThoughtFarmer, Confluence. So why aren’t there more RSS aggregators pitching for the enterprise market? Where’s the competition? Newsgator might be doing fine, but it should be only one of a number of companies providing enterprise RSS solutions, which, as far as I can tell, isn’t the case.

Of course, there are no easy answers, because this really isn’t about the tech as much as it’s about people. It’s about demonstrating the benefits, communicating use cases, reaching and persuading decision makers, and supporting evangelists. None of that can be done easily, quickly, or simply. Can we really expect Newsgator to turn around the attitudes of the tens of thousands of people needed to create a genuine sea change? Enterprise RSS readers can help companies organise and filter information, which is a critical business function in a range of industries. But with Newsgator the last company standing, will they be able to prove RSS’ worth before it’s too late.

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