I've only recently had a chance to catch up and read Tom Davenport's post a few weeks ago about his skepticism of Enterprise 2.0's ability to wreak significant cultural and hierarchical change inside organizations. Those of you tracking the Enterprise 2.0 story know the drill, namely that applying Web 2.0 tools and platforms inside organization may or may not -- depending on who you are talking to -- improve the way we collaborate, run our businesses, and even potentially tap major new veins of previously unexploitable worker productivity. I myself tend to be a bit biased because I'm very close to many uses of these technologies and their use in the field. And that's shown me that if one trend stands out clearly above the fray, it's that most organizations are rapidly embracing these tools today, either from the top-down or at a grassroots level, and often both.
Viewpoints like Tom are entirely right on however if we were looking at tools that are hard to use, highly complex and overspecialized, and required significant resources and special skills to acquire, deploy, and maintain. But this is entirely not the case in this wave of software applications that seem to systematically address virtually all the barriers we've seen in the past to getting new tools adopted, rapidly providing immediate value, and broadly used. One of the most important reasons for this is simply that the constantly evolving Web has continually refined and guided through competitive pressure -- and other feedback loops -- the design of sites until we have hit upon very effective models for collaboration and communication. These include the now-ubiquitous blog and wiki but many others as well including mashups, roaming Web desktops, and highly-customizable SaaS apps. Applying these to the enterprise is now extremely easy for anyone to do, highly applicable in many if not most business situations, and certainly last but not least, very inexpensive.
But as Tom goes on to note, the real obstacles to applying Web 2.0 platforms inside our workplaces may very well be our corporate cultures. Cultural impedance is something that's also inhibited many otherwise highly useful and potentially beneficial IT initiatives including SOA, BPM, EAI and others. The gap between what's technically possible and what the corporate culture is willing and able to accept -- must less actively encourage -- is often wider than many people automatically assume. Clearly the exciting things happening on the Web today from the explosion of user-generated content, ad hoc collaboration in the large, rapid self-service global information discovery via Web search, and collective intelligence stories like Wikipedia are outcomes that many would like to replicate inside our enterprises.
And the very openness of Web 2.0 platforms, the control and power that must be handed to every day workers for meaningful results to occur, and questions about accuracy, reliability, and security of such open repositories of information often gives business thinkers pause. Never mind that if you're an average worker over forty years old or so (meaning most of the high-level management in most organizations), the chance that you've blogged or used a wiki isn't very good. And you might view such unfamiliar tools with a fair amount of skepticism and lack of understanding.
Catalyzing the business change process
In a recent post I discussed the reasons and means for adding "Web-ness" to enterprise IT and the likely advantages it would provide in terms of improving business outcomes. But this discussion was primarily around the technical and infrastructure limitations that are inhibiting the full benefits of Web 2.0 in the enterprise. As I indicated above, business culture just as often holds back what's possible in terms of information technology -- certainly for good reasons at times -- but just as often because it lacks a change agent that can successful bridge the barriers that's preventing the corporate culture from evolving to adapt to ideas and approaches that are genuinely beneficial.
And this is where Enterprise 2.0 platforms have such an interesting story. Because they are highly democratic and egalatarian; anyone can deploy these tools, anyone can quickly learn to use and benefit from them, and they can be used to communicate and collaborate openly with anyone else inside (and often outside) the organization, are inherently viral, they literally tear down the barriers that would normally impede their forward movement and adoption inside the organization. And, anecdotally at least, this seems to be happening. I now routinely collect stories of firms large and small encountering these tools sprouting up within their organization, both via internally installation of these platform to employees just putting their favorite externally hosted Enterprise 2.0 tool subscription on their corporate credit card. In other words, because they appear to so easily cross organizational boundaries, can be adopted so easily, require virtually no training, are highly social, and so on, Enterprise 2.0 apps appear to have their very own "change agent" by their fundamental nature.
Read a detailed explanation of why Enterprise 2.0 apps can provide richer outcomes vs. traditional enterprise apps
Now, Web 2.0 applications are often designed explicitly for the consumer audience and are missing vital "enterprise context" such as integration with security platforms, enterprise search engines, Intranet resources such as portal engines, and so on. Fortunately, a wide-variety of Enterprise 2.0-ready tools have emerged that often address these concerns. But early Enterprise 2.0 apps, though they often addressed enterprise context from a technical perspective, were lacking in important enterprise context in terms of business needs. Fortunately this is starting to change and we're seeing some innovative new solutions addressing this.
Trends in Providing Useful Business Context to Enterprise 2.0
- Reputation systems. Since the best outcomes with Enterprise 2.0 will come when the collaboration tools are highly open and anyone can contribute, many workers will. How to know whether a user is generally trustworthy and accurate in the information they contribute? One is with reptuations systems like eBay. Products like Jive Software's Clearspace are adding reputation systems to let other users help sort out who tends to be a reliable source of knowledge and lets the users govern the system, which is more efficient, faster, and cheaper than centrally providing this capability. Thanks for Melanie Turek for this example.
- Support for external and internal collaborators both. One of the primary boundaries in most organizations is the one between the organization and the rest of the world. Internal content producers and collaborators should be given far more benefit of the doubt and rights to use Enterprise 2.0 platforms, but be able to provide safe access from across the firewall to business partners, suppliers, and even customers without exposing unnecessary amounts of information and inappropriate external control. Companies like Near-Time are focusing on so-called "big picture" Enterprise 2.0 that allows collaboration between anyone with appropriate business control over who can contribute what, change what, and see what.
- Enterprise class feed readers and management. Most Web 2.0 platforms come complete with an RSS and/or ATOM feed, allowing users to receive signals about the information that they care about when it changes, is commented on etc. This provides a major timesaver since workers can use these tools to avoid having to check all their favorite wiki pages and internal blogs for changes; they're just pulled in when they occur. Many enterprises are concerned about the productivity losses (excessive socialization and yet another forum that needs regular worker attention) and getting the tools to workers to handle the information abundance that can occur with Enterprise 2.0 helps. Companies like KnowNow and Attensa have been providing products in this space for a while and they have matured nicely.
- Exploiting collective intelligence in the enterprise. Collective intelligence, which Tim O'Reilly describes as "wiring up the global brain" so that we can know what virtually everyone else on the Web knows (at least the parts they're willing to share), is one of the most important pieces of Web 2.0 and recent studies have indicated that organizations are very interested in investing in collective intelligence strategies this year. But much of the information in Enterprise 2.0 is highly unstructured and doesn't necessary result in powerful new insights or actively make use of the knowledge jointly accumulated in Enterprise 2.0 platforms by employees. That's starting to change with companies like Baynote providing powerful tools that even leverage user's Database of Intentions continuously throughout the day to provide content just-in-time to support business activities.
As I said in my predictions for Enterprise 2.0 in 2007, that this year will see a great deal of adoption of these tools in the workplace, but we've just scratched the surface. As more and more tools hit the sweet spot of corporate needs, workers and management see the benefits of early use of these tools, and corporate cultures start getting changed through sustained contact with these tools and the Web itself, and we'll likely see that all of this will seem routine and even obvious. For now however, the challenges of Enterprise 2.0 adoption will likely take care of themselves and we'll continue to hear stories about how these tools keep appearing, like wildflowers, in the fertile fields of our businesses and institutions.
Please share your Enterprise 2.0 adoption war stories here in TalkBack below. We'll do a recap in a few weeks if we get enough of them.