Sunday, September 30, 2007

Early Indications September 2007 - Web 2.0 and the Enterprise: Beneath the Surface

As managers of enterprise computing environments confront both perennial and emerging challenges, a new set of technologies is complicating the situation. While so-called web 2.0 was born of such consumer-driven sites as Wikipedia,, YouTube, and various blogs and blog-related efforts, a growing number of observers and participants is arguing for the utility of Web 2.0 principles and tools in workplace computing. At the end of the day, the question is more subtle than it may appear at first glance.

Rather than hedge with the standard "it depends" conclusion, I believe that the various tools will prove to reinforce existing competitive advantages rather than confer new ones. That is, the cultural attributes necessary for successful Web 2.0 behavior are in and of themselves powerful differentiators, and the tools will amplify either the presence or absence of such traits as accountability, openness, receptiveness to change, sensitivity to customer needs and preferences, and the like.

The term and concept of "enterprise 2.0" appear to have originated with Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee, most explicitly in a Sloan Management Review article from this past spring. He argues that "the new technologies are significant because they can potentially knit together an enterprise and facilitate knowledge work in ways that were simply not possible previously." (p. 22; citation below) Specifically, McAfee points to search, links, "authoring" (blogs and wikis), tags, "extensions" (algorithmic extrapolation), and "signals" (mostly RSS) as the primary enabling technologies.

On its face, much of the argument seems straightforward and even exciting: having the ability to develop nuggets of business functionality quickly, from the edge of the organization inward, presents a stark contrast to many software development efforts. Being able to identify the right people with relevant skills and knowledge in minutes makes many document-centric "knowledge repositories" feel frustratingly ill-conceived. Assuming that experts on a subject would voluntarily articulate their expertise and create metadata would have been naive only a few years ago.

In the right situation, any of the above behaviors may, in McAfee's word, "emerge" as the result of bottom-up self-organization and effort rather than the mandated top-down kind. But emergence is a very tricky business -- the sciences of understanding its sources, implications, and results are still immature. Let's look at a few complicating factors that could stand between certain flavors of corporate reality and the ideal of enterprise 2.0.

-Of Computation and Communications

Corporate IS organizations have traditionally been responsible for the electronic automation of business tasks and processes: order entry, accounts receivable, warranty service, and more recently customer contact management and new product development. In contrast, web 2.0 technologies don't automate much; they facilitate richer, sometimes better organized and more widely distributed, communications. The first complication comes as IS organizations look at conventional questions that have surrounded application development: what is the ROI, what are the payoff metrics, where is the audit trail, who will manage access and permissions. More simply, issues of control show up almost immediately, as the need to specify goals, metrics, and chains of responsibility encounter notions of wide participation, of distributed authority, and of "shoot first, aim later (if at all)."

-Of Signals and Noise

The core assumptions of web 2.0 -- that users own the content they create, and that said content is of interest to someone else in a long tail of taste and proclivities -- have led to a veritable explosion of original and republished (in a variety of forms) content: whether as a Myspace profile, a YouTube video, a self-published movie review or political rant, or a wiki entry, content is everywhere. The larger problem of editing remains an issue even at "formal" publications, but it's intensified in a workplace where people may not have the same ability to opt out, and who, at 5:00 pm or whenever, really want to go home with more rather than fewer tasks completed. The incessant blurring of personal and work time, and personal and businesses modes of behavior, is playing out vividly in the Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 debate. As long as the tools for publishing and distribution develop faster than the tools for managing and filtering, web 2.0 has the potential for unpalatable signal-to-noise ratios, particularly with captive or semi-captive audiences.


This emphasis on communication is already having dramatic effects, according to 40- and 50-something peers of mine, particularly in knowledge-driven industries such as advertising, accounting, and consulting. I frequently see generational differences working with university students, but from the reports of many colleagues, the sharp differences in communications platforms across generations are radically complicating the task of management. It's not unheard-of for senior executives to have admins print off their e-mails, and voicemail remains the medium of choice in some firms. At the other demographic extreme, e-mail is often disregarded in favor of some combination of twitter, text messaging, PC-based instant messaging, and social-network message tools.

People who grew up with a web-centric social sensibility often communicate rather more freely than their elders (or regulators, in some cases) would prefer. Enterprise IS has the unenviable task of logging all material communications, and sometimes of turning off some of the most powerful web 2.0 exemplars. The aforementioned middle-aged managers, meanwhile, must communicate across an increasingly wide variety of technologies, each with particularities of convenience, cultural norms, interoperability, and security and privacy. Add to this cultural dynamic the technical incompatibilities among communications tools. It feels a bit like the days of Compuserve vs. Prodigy: my Facebook message won't cross over to your Myspace page. Being a contact on LinkedIn doesn't mean I can see you on Spoke.

-What's the platform Kenneth?

Once upon a time, a phone was a phone and a computer was a computer -- even when it connected to phone lines. Then phones went mobile but it was still easy to tell a Star-Tac from a Thinkpad. These days, however, gaming devices, smart phones, ultra-mobile PCs, and other hybrid devices have blurred the old easy distinctions. The iPhone is a computer, no question, but is neither marketed nor used like a PC. 200 million Skype users have proven powerfully that voice is just another data type over the network. More in Asia than in North America, the mobile phone is a television "set" -- even the old words are antiquated. In the enterprise setting, this proliferation and polymorphism of devices combines with the content explosion and communication imperative to create unprecedented complexity: complexity for users of various tools and platforms, complexity for application specification, complexity for network design and security officers.

The many costs of these multiple layers of complexity begin to illustrate how web 2.0 tools can, in the wrong setting, extract far more than they contribute. Flame wars provide an accessible case in point: even though there may be wisdom in crowds (whether through various forms of voting, prediction markets - which McAfee doesn't mention, or simply an unexpected discovery of domain expertise), there will be more far instances of threadjacking, name-calling, bad information, and other forms of noise.

At the same time, in the right organization, web 2.0 tools can enhance existing forms of positive dialogue. Given the technologies' emphasis on communication, for example, the contradiction between operations and marketing might be creatively discussed and addressed. Why does marketing so highly value (and expensively pursue) depth and duration of customer interaction while call centers are designed and run to minimize the company's contact with precisely the people marketing is struggling to reach? In such fluid, indeterminate situations, McAfee's characterization of "emergent collaboration" may indeed be realized.

So the question comes down not to "are web 2.0 technologies applicable to enterprise IT?" but rather "in what kinds of cultures and in the context of what kinds of business processes can wikis, tags, blogs, and their associated tools make a difference?" That is, once we shift the focus of inquiry from the technologies to the locus of their deployment, the believers and doubters can both begin assembling the relevant evidence for what promises to be a long, strange experiment and discussion.

Andrew P. McAfee, "Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration," Sloan Management Review 47:3, 21-28.