Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

Summary: On the eve of the main Boston Enterprise 2.0 Conference, it's worth taking a look at the state of the enterprise.


On the eve of the main Boston Enterprise 2.0 Conference, it's worth taking a look at the state of the enterprise.

Despite being up to my eyeballs in collaboration strategy behind the firewall inside large companies this year I strive to stay objective and to avoid failing to see the wood for the trees. It's all too easy to get sucked into the moment and not to be grounded in what is actually going on today inside businesses and what their needs are, as opposed to believing fashionable business ideas have become reality.

2.0 technologies have enabled an extraordinary level of cross pollination and interconnectedness in our individual lives and are now very much mainstream, if we choose to leverage them. The now peaking wave of the first global social network, Facebook, has given millions their first taste of an interconnected social graph. Like AOL in the 1.0 wave, Facebook is a mass market 'walled garden' and has become for countless distributed families an online suburbia filled with baby pictures, holiday photos and images of food.

There are also countless online bulletin board forum websites for hobbyists - software such as vbulletin now also have wikis - and these sites are the main specialist locations online where more specific groupings of enthusiasts congregate to discuss pottery, horse saddles, carburetors or whatever their interest is. Some of these groups have parallel 'like'  pages for their members so they can get a broader social perspective on the people they primarily know for their specialist knowledge.

An unvarnished picture of the enterprise of 2011 shows the place where many of these enthusiasts work to make money to pay for their hobbies, and where things typically move at a glacial pace. You start by getting your door badge scrutinized by security before you're allowed access to an old Windows XP machine in your stall in the cube farm - followed by your email address and logins to enterprise systems on your several versions back but security compliant Internet Explorer browser.

The physical environment is typically fluorescent tube lighting, and the sound track is often the rustle of printers producing paper output of Powerpoint decks and documents to be discussed and documented with paper and pen in meetings. Daylight and/or an office are desirable perks. Facebook is known as 'Social Notworking' and is an opportunity to catch up with friends and family on your smartphone...unless you work in marketing, in which case you're trying to figure out how to get maximum prospect reach from 'free' online social media.

Facebook is the lowest common denominator way to informally keep tabs on what people you know are doing and have lightweight interactions with them both at work and socially, while Linkedin has done a good job of creating more formal professional topic discussion groups.

The typical enterprise is now increasingly global (and you can make a strong argument for the idea that the largest ones are more powerful than some nation states in our current era).  Working in the global enterprise collaboration world, you see many of the attributes of international diplomacy, with hostile borders and/or friendly alliances between departments and typically hidden but bitter rivalries. (The difference is citizens are free to emigrate - get a new job somewhere else - from these often long term battles).

There's a vibrant online world - ZDNet included - where information surfaces and flashes by every day, and it's all too easy to get sucked into the moment and not see the bigger picture. Twitter is probably the giddiest of these online arenas, with all sorts of posturing and hubris to accompany 'first past the post' publishing of reactions to information and business concept alchemy.

What many Twitterists don't seem to realize is that potential employers sometimes look at your Twitter page and get freaked out if they see you are tweeting every 15 minutes. Unless you're a genius you can't be doing much else, is the logic, even if what you're saying is smart and of the moment. Using Twitter can be like looking out of the side windows of a fast moving car instead of focusing on the road ahead, and the medium can cause us to fail to take a step back and be more objective.

The challenge in the enterprise, as we reach information saturation, is intelligent uses for all the technology options at our disposal. I've been ruminating on the difference between Surowieki's 'The Wisdom of  Crowds'  (a book from 2004 I believe to be deeply flawed) and 'Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds' an 1841 history of 'popular follies' by Charles Mackay that's still in print and widely read in financial circles.

"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." is a well known quote from that book.

There's no question coherent strategy to harness the power of modern collaborative technologies will yield substantial increases in efficiency and business performance - I've seen it happen - the challenge is getting people to think in the ways that will enable that to be achieved.

Free consumer social products such as Facebook and Twitter have created perceptions in society, whether people are users or not, of 'social media' being a trivial, light world of communication where people self organize.  As individuals we can choose to participate socially or not depending on our mood, but orchestrating people working together more efficiently using similar technologies within the enterprise requires very different approaches, which are very dependent on context and goals.

It's not hard to turn on the information spigot within business through deployed technologies, the challenge is in filtering information to expose it to the right people at the right times and guiding intelligent usage for maximum benefit. There's tactically a strong element of information flow plumbing in order to reroute the way people access and interact with it. If you have too many 'personal digital lifestyle' documentors in your organization they may frighten off all the other folks you are guiding towards more efficient ways of working.

Getting people to think as individuals in order to contribute more intelligently to their place of work is a timeless holy grail, and while modern Enterprise 2.0 technologies enable this thinking the herd mentalities and seductive pressures of the narcissitic consumer web can pollute the best of intention.

At the Boston Enterprise 2.0 Conference next week I'm chair of the 'People, Culture and Internal Communications' track where I'll be discussing the above and more, and blogging the conference here.

Topics: Collaboration, Social Enterprise


Oliver Marks leads the Global Digital Enterprise Team at HP, having previously provided seasoned independent consulting guidance to companies on effective planning of business strategy, tactics, technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models that make best use of modern collaborative and social networking tools to achieve their business goals.

These are Oliver's views and not those of his employer HP.

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  • Monitoring Twitter and Facebook

    We've fired more than 30 people this year based on misuse of Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin. That's not counting the people we fired for accessing porn while at work, still a depressingly frequent occurrence. As much as we publish notifications about the fact that we monitor EVERYTHING on the company network, people still persist in doing things that are not work related on company time.
    terry flores
    • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

      @terry flores It would be helpful to know how your organization defines the word "misuse". I worked for decades at an enterprise that just blocked everything social, including many useful blogs. I'm assuming yours did not do that, unless you caught people using their smartphones to access the three biggies. Was access allowed, but within the strictures of a zero-tolerance policy? Not challenging you; merely curious to know more. Thanks.
      • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

        @rickladd We do not block access to Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin. But we do monitor all access, and people get fired for violating rules like posting confidential information, or for just wasting too much time on the internet and not doing their job. Porn, gambling, online gaming, and illegal activities will get you fired just for accessing those sites. We do have filters for most of that stuff, but they are never perfect.

        What so many people don't understand is that when you use a company resource (email, network, smartphone) then the company DOES have the ability to watch what you are doing. Even when you don't use the company resources, if you post things on Twitter or Facebook that the management doesn't like, it WILL come back to haunt you.
        terry flores
  • Sea?

    Sea of cubibles? In my IT shop, which is oil and gas we have countless numbers of empty cubicles... 10 years ago the offices were packed and we were running out of room, today most of those jobs are in India and Manila...
  • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

    Excellent post, Oliver. After decades at an old-fashioned aerospace corporation, where I was "allowed" to pursue some of the possibilities of Enterprise 2.0 (and ultimately accepted early retirement rather than continue the inevitable self-flagellation), I am now working on applying these concepts to small business, merchant's associations, and Municipal governance. The difficulties are related, if not similar to those you raise here.

    Wish I could be in Boston next week, but I will be following on various channels. Say "hello" to Sameer and my colleagues from the Community BackChannel for me. Break a leg!
    • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

      @rickladd I am wondering if you are a professional services provider helping small business, local government etc to adopt this individual driven collaborative workflows. If you are, I am very interested to chat about that with you. Please contact me at . Much appreciated.
  • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

    My own personal thing about the social media is if you have a smart phone and you want to access it, go ahead, as long as your work is getting done. I can understand why a company won't allow it via their own computers and network but to block access on your *own* phone is ridiculous.
  • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

    I think a great article. I think in many parts a lot of this "cultural" shift to leveraging web 2.0 tools will occur through success and failure of a business. As we progress, business in particular will become more dependent on leveraging these tools as Customer Service, Marketing and PR tools as we start checking our Twitter app on our phone for news to see what our friends are saying instead of tuning into CNN. Companies that embrace this and actively encourage their employees to utilize these tools for both professional and personal reasons will no doubt reap the success of this collaborative effort in expanding both internal and external communications. Companies that fire an employee because they check their Facebook on work time will no doubt see the success (or lack their of...) of their draconian policies.
    Adrian Harris
    • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

      @AdrianHarris - Twitter as "Customer Service"

      People have tried that as a convenient excuse, but the usage records tell the real story. And like many companies, we don't fire a person for using Facebook, but for abusing the privilege of doing it on work time. As far as success of the policy: there are bucketloads of applicants standing in line to fill any open slot, and that situation isn't going to change in the next 5-10 years. Why take a chance?
      terry flores
      • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

        @terry flores - I don't doubt that you have a number of applicants lining up to take peoples jobs when they are fired. I just have not found such a policy to effectual - there are substantial amounts of intellectual capital that leave the office when someone walks out either on their will, or ours - not to mention the time lost in training and bringing a back fill up to speed. I know all of my staff access FB/Twitter et. al. and utilize it frequently for non-work related reasons, sure I can block it/fire them, but they can easily find out a way to utilize these tools (or others) without me being able to identify them, and I don't have the time to be the work force police officer. They know that they can be looking at photos on Facebook as I walk past their cubicles and I won't say anything or care - and I like to think they appreciate it, and will give me everything when I ask for it. I give them tasks, and I expect them to be achieved in an exceptional fashion, you do that and I have little care if you spend half your day looking at youtube videos. If you fail to kick goals in the responsibilities with which you have been appointed, thats when a discussion about the uncertainty of your employment future occurs, Facebook or not.
        Adrian Harris
  • Great points - seeing much the same...

    Oliver - see you next week at the conference, I run through the same mental exercise as you as well. It's far too easy to get caught up in the latest buzz of Salesforce, Jive, Google, Twitter, Facebook, et al.

    Meanwhile, the vast majority of large-scale enterprises are at least 5-7 years behind the cutting edge, if not 10 years behinds, although it's been interesting to see how quickly iPads are becoming very common to see in big corporate meetings.

    I know of one very large company (ah, NDAs...) that realized in the last 6 months that their leisurely upgrade of networks and computers spread around thousands of locations had better ramp up MUCH faster and jump straight to the most dynamic environment possible, or their competition was going to leave them way behind.

    But it was only *partly* the desire to take advantage of Enterprise 2.0 and more dynamic/modern systems. Really, it was about resetting the foundation to be able to rapidly build on top of that infrastructure - and in parallel, rolling out Enterprise 2.0 capabilities.

    Don't forget the basics, folks - as they say in New Hampshire "you can't get there from here" if you don't have the foundation of your business and technology nailed down.

    Incidentally, there's probably a multi-million dollar market to provide maps for cube farms inside large enterprises. Anybody game to tackle it?

  • RE: Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

    fb & web is so yesterday.