Innovators & Influencers: SocialText's Eugene Lee

CEO Lee is an "old collaborative software geek" looking for new ways to keep people connected.

December 15, 2007

5 Min Read
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Most companies keep mum when searching for a new CEO. But enterprise-wiki vendor Socialtext decided that didn't fit its open nature, so last July founder Ross Mayfield blogged about his search. Among the blog readers was Eugene Lee, an enterprise e-mail pioneer and self-described "old collaborative software geek." Deciding that wikis represented an advance on e-mail, Lee got in touch with Mayfield via LinkedIn. Three months later, he was hired.

Lee's initial reaction was shock at how much Web 2.0 technology Socialtext uses. "People talk about the squishy, touchy-feely thing of a group wiki, but for the first time I could feel the value of that," he says. That's not just a sales pitch. With none of its more than 50 employees permanently based at its Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters, Socialtext is a very virtual organization. Lee knew from experience at Cisco that remote employees can feel isolated, so making wikis mobile is an important application for Socialtext.

For example, users can save portions of wikis to devices like the BlackBerry for offline editing and then sync them. Lee says this can turn personal notes into shared understanding: "Wikis are about knowledge that is dynamically constructed rather than taking knowledge that has been codified and published," he says. Sounds smart to us.

Q&A With Eugene Lee

InformationWeek What is Web 2.0? Enterprise 2.0?
Lee: Web 2.0 is a phrase describing patterns of new technology. It includes rich Internet applications, user-contributed content, community development, small component applications, even things like Flickr and YouTube. We see them first on the public Internet because it's easy to test out with millions of people. Enterprise 2.0 is a term that the founding team here used as a guiding principle when they were creating the company: Let's look at the patterns that we see in the public internet from Web 2.0 and see which ones are appropriate with customization and adaptation for enterprise deployment.
IW: How is an enterprise wiki different from public sites like Wikipedia?
Lee: I fear that Wikipedia gives customers an overly narrow perception of wikis. Many enterprise customers actually start with an internal version of Wikipedia. But wikis can do much more. For example, a large tech vendor customer of ours uses wikis in their customer support call centers, and has managed to reduce to average call time by 20%.
IW: How do wikis improve on other collaboration technologies, like e-mail?
Lee: Intellectually, having a dialog on a wiki page is almost identical to having a dialog on e-mail: Someone writes, someone responds, and so on. But at the same time, it's different. E-mail is very personal and informal. When people write on a wiki, it remains informal, but it's more considered and thoughtful, because you're writing on a public space. And it's very easy to link in and include other stuff, which people don't take the time to do when they're on e-mail. The quality of a wiki page improves over time, which is very different from what happens in an e-mail thread. People will come in and fix grammar or restructure the article.
IW: Which other Web 2.0 technologies do you use?
Lee: The question is how do I maximize the inclusiveness of my remote people? The majority of my employees do not work out of our headquarters in Palo Alto. Most work out of their homes or in single-person remote offices. I've got to keep the team productive. It's frustrating to assume that you need to be tethered to an office to collaborate. We have a secure IRC channel, brought in by the engineers. At first I thought "how quaint" compared to IM, but it's amazing. We're also playing around with IP Video, using a system that lets us see five faces at once. We're playing around with capturing whiteboard notes. And everybody uses Skype. There's also a lot of social pressure for people to blog. It's not about justifying your existence or bragging about what you've done; it's more like learning how to do your work in public, to share what you're learning, and to link up with people. Blogging gives us a degree of transparency that I think, if done correctly, is phenomenal.
IW: Is SocialText planning to move into other areas like blogs or mashups? And will that bring you into competition with your partners in SuiteTwo?
Lee: Yes, we have plans, but we can't tell you about them yet. We won't be competing with SuiteTwo. There are several other places where we plan to extend the value proposition of a wiki. I think there's going to be lots of motion in the broad category of Enterprise Social Software. You'll see partnerships, you'll see friends merge with friends, friends merge with not-friends, big companies gobble up small companies. It's going to be a lot of fun.

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