Web 2.0 in the enterprise: language matters

Web 2.0 in the enterprise: language matters

Summary: As we approach the second Office 2.0 I find myself troubled by the lack of concrete examples of how Web 2.


As we approach the second Office 2.0 I find myself troubled by the lack of concrete examples of how Web 2.0 technologies are impacting the enterprise. There are a good number of small, tactical case studies out there but you have to ask if anything is really changing. Dave Margulius tried to get under the skin of senior executives at a recent Churchill Club panel discussion. Randall Spratt CIO at McKesson acknowledged the utility of new technologies that help home workers retain a s sense of social inclusion while Doug Schwinn, CIO Hasbro talked about the using of IM as an essential tool for his developer community. But no-one is coming up with examples where you can say that business is fundamentally changing as a result of the technologies 'we' think of as comprising Web 2.0. Why might this be? Are CXOs Luddites as Vinnie Mirchandani implies:

The CIOs in the Dave panel above clearly are using emerging tools - in the context of helping employees collaborate. Show them solutions to their problems and they are interested.

But talk to the CIO about individuals as sports fans or voters for a particular candidate and the interest drops (unless it is a CIO of a sports team or a political campaign).

...or is there something else in play here?

My personal sense is that those of us keen to see these technologies add value are using the wrong language in the business context. Much of what I see in Web 2.0 and particularly the discussions around social media appear aimed at two things: the democratization of information and consumerisation. Neither of these things are bad but they don't play well to the way business organizes itself or responds to its primary objective - returning shareholder value. In order to meet its primary objective business has to satisfy consumer demand. As Chris Selland said in a Google Group conversation: "Without consumers, there is no entrerprise." So true - but then CXOs see the world very differently from consumers. Here's an example:

JP Rangaswami recently talked about Facebook as providing business benefit:

Facebook provides a good relationship-conversation-transaction base as foundation. It assists you in finding people and skill and expertise, in creating communities of interest, in subscribing to news and events, in supporting polls and questions and discussion boards. It also captures quite a lot of profiling and preference and behavioural information.

If I had something like Facebook functionality within an enterprise, I could do things like draw collaboratively-filtered lessons from watching the apps that people used. Why does person A have an app set that differs so widely from that of person B? What can I learn from that difference? What can person A and person B learn from that difference?

JP is a senior executive at BT and there is much with to agree in these thoughtful statements. But then he adds (my emphasis added):

I could do things like plot out the routes that real information took, subverting hierarchies and tunnelling under garden walls.

There is no question in my mind that enterprise silos and hierarchies represent a considerable barrier to value delivery. The problems of breaking down power structures are well known and is something that has been debated over many years. It is the language that's changed. So while collaboration as a concept is well understood, the current discussions create cultural problems for enterprise decision takers. Check this further post by JP where he talks about the social element (emphasis added):

Applications are important. The platform’s “openness” to new and changing applications is important. But let’s not make the same mistake that the IT profession has been making for decades. It’s not about the apps, it’s about the people.

Facebook is a community of people. All dressed up with everywhere to go. The world is their oyster. Or maybe I should now be saying “worlds are their oysters”…..

As a social scientist by education, I welcome the language of the social but ask a CXO and I doubt you'll get such a warm reception. That is because social scientists are primarily addressing issues around inequality, a topic you'd be hard pressed to find on many board agendas.

I sense at least part of the problem lies in the reality that business sits at the other end of the spectrum from the Long Tail enthused individual, with all the freedoms those individuals enjoy. This is especially true in large enterprises where the need to exercise controls inevitably places restrictions on what can and cannot be done.

In my view, talk of democratization, subversion, disruption, community and other value laden terms flies in the face of what business believes it has to do. It is hard to imagine a CXO viewing the language used as anything short of implying an anarchic environment. In one recent engagement, I saw execs visibly wincing when some of these terms were used. In the process driven enterprise, talk of that kind does not compute.

Others will argue that success with social media at places like Sun, Microsoft and SAP makes lie to my argument. Maybe so but these are technology companies and you'd expect them to be at the forefront of adoption. Is it making any appreciable difference to their business models? More important, does it have a direct influence on shareholder value? I'd argue that in a broad sense, the answer is a resounding no. On the other hand, Oracle, which has not been as gung-ho with blogs as others is outperforming its competitors from a share price performance perspective.

compareprices.jpg One of the main social benefits punted by protagonists is that they help foster positive, internal change. If true then I'd expect to see that reflected in business performance or changes in strategy.  But I don't. Individuals are doing great things. Craig Cmehil, a SAP evangelist created a pilot that integrated Zoho with SAP. The basic work was done in a matter of days yet I don't see many takers. Why would they when this kind of thing subverts Duet, a project SAP and Microsoft spent years working upon? I believe part of the answer lays in the difficulty management has in coming to terms with disruptive technology and its implications for how business is organized as expressed through the current use of language. Collaboration = OK, disruption = bad.

Language is not the only hurdle. Fidelity Investments provides an interesting case study of a successful project where the hurdles/challenges are spelled out:

Compliance, Fear, Age, Risk, Culture, Enterprise Content Management, Enterprise Search, Enterprise Docuement Management

Started as a grass roots movement and continues to lack strong management understanding. Three years ago most people did not know what a wiki was and bottom up educational processes are slow to move up.

An AT&T collaborative project reflects similar issues:

Social, Cultural, and Political Issues are always present and must be addressed over time

Open versus Closed Organization can also create problems since power comes from the controlling of information.

Leadership is essential from the high end as well as topical SME's

Fidelity and AT&T are but two of a small clutch of publicly available cases at Cases2.com, a project kicked of by Harvard's Professor Andrew McAfee a leading light in the Enterprise 2.0 movement.

If social computing is to succeed in the enterprise there is a need for us to better understand the changes it implies.  In my view, a change in the way language is used and redefined for business would go a long way to stemming management fears and fostering an environment where change is seen as a good.

Topics: Browser, CXO, SAP

Dennis Howlett

About Dennis Howlett

Dennis Howlett is a 40 year veteran in enterprise IT, working with companies large and small across many industries. He endeavors to inform buyers in a no-nonsense manner and spares no vendor that comes under his microscope.

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  • Oracle has long been Web 2.0

    Excellent article but a miss regarding Oracle. Oracle has been a pioneer in web video and podcast broadcasting (intermedia) and firms such as InternetBroadcasting and AOL likely use the company's technology if You Tube does not - which it may. The Oracle Tech network is a strong example of Web 2.0 with Oracle training having been done Web 2.0 for at least 3 years.

    Web 2.0 need not be defined as narrowly as just You Tube and Google technology. The author of this article hints at its true definition which involves switching from a read-only society to a read-write one.

    "Much of what I see in Web 2.0 and particularly the discussions around social media appear aimed at two things: the democratization of information and consumerisation. Neither of these things are bad but they don?t play well to the way business organizes itself or responds to its primary objective - returning shareholder value"

    I think the above is a great insight. We build on it by saying that Web 2.0 is fundamentally a United States technology. This is because only in the USA are citizens allowed to blog freely without fear of law suits if the facts presented are in error.

    We in the USA are even allowed to play devils advocate by stating things like BILL GATES IS A MOBSTER UNLESS PROVEN OTHERWIZE and as long as we are chatting about a public figure that figure can not bring us to court. Our form of democracy relies on this "rude" banter because our government is not charged with the job of identifying robber barons and rip off artists.

    The lesser EU democracies assume that wrong doers and mobsters do not influence and control government officials and are capable of identifying and bringing to justice those who would do harm to the citizenry. Our form of democracy recognizes that government officials can and are corruptible and that multi-national corporations will attempt to do so for shareholder value.

    Microsoft rarely pays US taxes and that is a grand example of the corruption of government for the benefit of shareholders. Shareholders who are not living in the USA do not benefit from highway infrastructure and prefer that no tax be placed on the corporations they have invested in. These investors would rather see a kind of public-private rip off where the citizenry pays for the roads to get them to work and the out of country investor reaps profit without investing in that infrastructure.

    We in the USA solve our infrastructure problems simply by ensuring that every multi-national corporation pays at least a minimum tax on profits. But campaign financing rules work against this simple solution. When universal access to Web 2.0 is established via the 700 mhz and less than one ghz spectrum things get simple. Roads get fixed. Politicians start representing the citizens and not the corporations. Monopolies do not get supported and created as the result of lobbing. Etc.

    Frank L. Mighetto
    US Patriot
    • Perhaps but...

      I should perhaps have said that Oracle hasn't been as publicly vocal around the blog thing or been as loosely controlling as others.

      I'd recommend viewing The Trap and The Century of the Self series by Andrew Curtis. I think you'll find plenty there to chew over. They're on Google video.
      • I prefer the original title Cold Cold Heart

        Cold Cold Heart forces me to think of Heart of Darkness which was the basis of the film Apocalypse Now. Lost in the film version but vivid in the book is this notion of a corporate culture where the young and ambitious are encouraged to behave in ways beyond acceptable in polite society.

        In the end you realize that there is no way for those so encouraged to regain the moral compass expected by their home countrymen. Because they can never see the wrong they do, they must remain expatriates and not return to the societies that allowed the corporation they worked for to make them so.

        In the US we are taught to hate the French because French revolutionaries not only overthrew a monarchical system but also yielded a so-called reign of terror, a class warfare, against people we would identify as corporate executives.

        Our countries form of democracy was carefully crafted so that this has not and is not likely to happen. Part of the craft involves allowing the citizenry to vocalize displeasure regarding corporate and government leaders (AKA publics) with satire and what would be called slanderous statements.

        This was the reason for a post office, news papers, regulated radio, and now Web 2.0 in the USA. It is a unique right in that in other lesser democracies only advocates (lawyers) can speak, write and blog as we do.

        This Larry Ellison statement during an Americas Cup Competition that the Seattle Syndicate operated like Bill Gates and would cheat because the penalties never exceed the reward was key. Bill Gates (To My Knowledge) wasn't a member of the syndicate. His co-founder Paul Allen was. Bill Gates is lost to polite society. We in the USA do as much as we can to expatriate him because we do not want our children to be like him.