RSS can boost collaboration

Blogging technology has a real potential to help you earn your next bonus

Blogs, blogs, bloggity blog blog. In the midst of your daily IT grind, the constant blog babble may sound tedious. But while they are the latest way for employees to waste time using IT resources, blogging technology also has real potential to help you earn your next bonus. Yeah, I'm talking about RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds. Just don't look at it as a silver bullet.

Microsoft's SharePoint push has made team-style collaboration a hot buzzword in Windows IT shops -- mainly because Redmond's made it so easy. Grab a template, add some team-specific content, spend a little time handling permissions and you can have a fairly sophisticated internal collaboration site up and running in hours rather than weeks. You can even open it up to specific users outside the firewall.

That's powerful stuff no matter how you slice it and certainly a competitor or collaborator to the Wiki wave flowing over the rest of the Web. But while RSS certainly fits into this mold, collaboration really isn't where we're looking to use RSS. Frankly, I'm all collaborated out.

My users are swimming in new ways to talk to each other, e-mail each other, join message threads with each other; IM each other, edit documents together, present each other with new electronic forms and a host of other stuff. Conference rooms are getting cobwebs and users are seeking therapy due to lack of human contact. It's even cutting down on in-office hanky panky. What's the world coming to?

So tossing RSS feeds at them as another way to communicate in a general sense really isn't high on my list of things to do. Using RSS as a way to distribute highly targeted information, on the other hand, is sexy. It's just not as easy as setting up a SharePoint site.

As usual, let's take an example from the real estate world. Our application feeds new inventory to agents: empty apartments each with its own status (empty, showing, empty but not showing, etc.). Informing users of these changes can be done via the usual Web-based console and some database query work on the back. No muss, no major fuss. So what's RSS get you?

Portability and ease of use. I'm using Outlook 2007 Beta right now and it has an RSS reader and filter built-in. Thunderbird and other e-mail readers are following suit. That means that e-mail clients will be able to act reliably as RSS aggregators in the next six months. And that means I can push RSS content to anything that can run an e-mail program. For those hustling bustling New York real estate agents, that means PDAs and smartphones. Combine that with new inventory updates and suddenly I'm allowing a lot of agents to stay on top of new sales opportunities as easily as they might get the latest gadget toy update from Engadget.

Without RSS, I'd have to develop a handheld-centric version of the app's UI -- possibly for multiple devices. With RSS, I can piggyback off of existing applications. Let other vendors do a big chunk of the job for me and still look like a genius. But before you try the same thing, remember the particulars. I'm talking as a software developer. I've got programmers in-house who can take care of the back-end stuff -- because that still needs attention. RSS is really just a better way to sort and deliver information on the front-side.

So for you CIOs looking to point RSS at a specific business process, by all means, that's a project worth chasing; but if you're expecting it to be plug and play, you're out of luck. You'll still need to integrate existing back-end business resources into your RSS delivery engine and that still requires all the usual goodies: SQL queries, permissioning, maintenance, the works. RSS feeds have great potential as in-house information delivery engines, but right now they're optimized only for the front. Behind the pretty Windows, that's still our problem, so plan right and you'll be happy.