Enterprise 2.0: quo vadis?

Summary:As I close out 2009 I'm taking this opportunity to have one more go at scratching my Enterprise 2.0 itch.

As I close out 2009 I'm taking this opportunity to have one more go at scratching my Enterprise 2.0 itch. Before I start, if my writings on this drive you nuts imagine what it's like for me. I do wish we had another name for it but like social media and Web 2.0 we're kinda stuck with it. I hope that 2010 will see me get over that prejudice.

Instead of having another generalized swipe, I'm using this post to discuss Prof Andrew McAfee's book: New Enterprise 2.0: Collaborative Tools For Your Organization's Toughest Challenges kindly sent to me by the publishers. Rather than undertake a straight review of which there are plenty, I want to contextualize in terms of what I see in the real world.

I was determined to come at the book with as dispassionate an eye as possible. That was always going to be a tough ask but I'd like to think I have made at least a spirited effort. It helps that Andy slapped me between the eyes with his opening line: "Skinheads are behind this book." As someone brought up in the hippy era and who witnessed the destruction and fear that British skinheads brought, such lines have direct meaning for me. In Andy's hands, such lines represent a playful device to grab attention. As did much of the book.

I was pleasantly surprised to see copious references to social scientists, something that has been missing from much of the material I've seen coming out of blogs elsewhere. As someone educated in the social sciences, such things matter to me and elevated the discusion to a level I ofund intellectually challenging. I particularly like the treatise on strong and weak ties, based on the work of Mark Granovetter. Granovetter's research implies to Andy that organizations can be more efficient where networks of weak ties operate. I get that. In reading around the book I found myself influenced by people I don't know but who I reached through others with whom I have strong ties. Gil Yehuda's analysis for instance resonates well:

What really worked for me:  this was a thoughtful, conversational exploration.  It’s not hyped at all, but McAfee shares many opinions too.  The topics discussed are strongly anchored in fact and practice.  The views expressed will challenge the reader to think harder.  But the message is quite positive and forward-looking.  Most impressive though was that McAfee does not just list information — he explores why the information is relevant, why the reasoning matters, and how this impacts business.

If Enterprise 2.0 is to take hold then having books that are immediately accessible are critically important. Strike one for Andy. The fact it is positive with little by way of caveat encourages readers to question the rationale and dig deeper. Having met the man behind the book I can't envisage he'd have been so positive without questioning everything along the way. That's something for which I've not given Andy much credit in the way I've approached the topic. In reading Andy's more recent posts, it is clear he sees this topic as one that will morph. To that extent, his thinking is in line with the notion of 'emergent behaviors.' That should be welcomed. Even so, the book left me worried.

While I have no doubt the cases he cites are real, I wonder whether we'll see broad adoption that delivers breakthrough value in the way Andy describes. Many organizations are deeply rooted in Taylorian time and motion thinking that brings the kind of hierarchical order with which many are comfortable. That has led to much discussion around infusing E2.0 into resistant business cultures. It's something with which I constantly wrestle. Andy seems to imply E2.0 can fit anywhere yet I can imagine many places where it would not be welcome. If that's true then to what extent is E2.0 technology a valid addition to IT environments?

The best examples I can conjure are SAP and Oracle. SAP has E2.0 written all over it. It fits well with the collegiate style of business...call it culture...that SAP chooses as its modus operandi. Oracle on the other hand is the epitome of command and control, famous for its aggressive culture and lack of tolerance for anything that doesn't fit the party line. To me, Oracle has taken Stalinism to new capitalist heights. Although very different, each can be regarded as successful. One makes use of E2.0, the other, much less so - or at least directly. The larger question is not whether one is right and the other wrong. Judged by financial measures, both have validity. The larger question is whether Oracle would perform even better if it had an infusion of E2.0. If Andy's thesis is correct then logic suggests an answer in the affirmative. Can we draw comfort from the examples in Andy's book? Perhaps.

Much is made of the intelligence community's Intellipedia efforts post 9/11. On face value it is a compelling story. An inability to 'connect the dots' where there was ample evidence in stovepiped organizations is said to have worked against the US intelligence community from being able to prevent the 9/11 attacks. Today, we are told that information sharing has made a demonstrable difference to analyst effectiveness. Let's step back a moment. The question I don't see answered is the extent to which anguish among intelligence community leaders forced them into a new mindset.

My personal experience suggests that E2.0 fits best where there is a clearly observed need to do things differently and where institutional knowledge is locked up in stovepiped operations. That is rarely perceived as a strategic issue when viewed from the inside of an organization and especially those that are outwardly successful. It is often compounded by power structures that are horrendously difficult to penetrate and held in place by technologies that enforce the very structures Andy challenges. At face value, these observations would seem to void Andy's thesis. However, in thinking around this topic I stumbled across Venkatesh Rao's probing argument on culture:

When talking about catalyzing adoption of social media within the enterprise, at some point, someone will predictably say something like, “the most important thing is to get the culture to change.”  Framing social media adoption in these terms is basically a show-stopper, because it means you’ve trotted out a reassuring phrase that allows you to view yourself as a visionary, others as obdurate idiots, and gives you something abstract to blame when (not if) your initiative fails. I don’t have an alternate framing, a phrase to replace “culture change” because there isn’t one. “Culture change” is merely a zeroth-order framing that screams “some hard, context-specific thinking needs to be done here.” When you hear the phrase, you are hearing lazy thinking. The key is to start thinking, not to substitute a different lazy-thinking phrase.

I won't claim enough knowledge about the sociology of organizations to assert whether Venkatesh is right in his sometimes brutal Darwinian approach to business thinking. What I do know is that his treatise stopped me dead in my tracks. In Andy's thinking, emergent behaviors allow for a more egalitarian form of business structure where more good ideas emerge. One interpretation of Venkatesh's thinking suggests exactly the opposite.

It is perhaps the tension between these extremes of thinking that needs working out in 2010. In the meantime, I thoroughly recommend reading Andy's book. If nothing else, it should get you thinking about what E2.0 might mean to your organization.

Topics: Social Enterprise, Oracle

About

Dennis Howlett has been providing comment and analysis on enterprise software since 1991 in a variety of European trade and professional journals including CFO Magazine, The Economist and Information Week. Today, apart from being a full time blogger on innovation for professional services organisations, he is a founding member of Enterpri... Full Bio

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