Enable richer business outcomes: Free your intranet with Web 2.0

I've been asked a number of times recently to succinctly describe the difference between using older, more traditional software models and things like Web 2.0. Besides getting tired of level setting what Web 2.0 is in a given crowd (which does seem to be getting easier however), there's a growing body of knowledge to refer to that explains how Web 2.0 seems to directly address a lot of issues with existing software models in the enterprise.

I've been asked a number of times recently to succinctly describe the difference between using older, more traditional software models and things like Web 2.0.  Besides getting tired of level setting what Web 2.0 is in a given crowd (which does seem to be getting easier however), there's a growing body of knowledge to refer to that explains how Web 2.0 seems to directly address a lot of issues with existing software models in the enterprise.

One of my favorites so far is Andrew McAfee's popular article about what he calls Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration in a recent issue of the respected MIT Sloan Management Review.  While you have to pay a few bucks for access to a copy, which I can assure you is well-worth it, it remains one of the most compelling descriptions of the use of Web 2.0 in the enterprise, complete with a case study. 

Web 2.0 and Enterprise Software: Enabling Richer Outcomes


Fortunately, the title of McAfee's piece says the important part.  It's about enabling rich, dynamic outcomes from our IT systems, which we are now learning by watching what's happening today out on the Web, are still too structured, rigid, and make too many upfront assumptions to enable effective levels of innovation, viral adoption, and increases in productivity.  This is only exacerbated today by the need for increasingly dynamic collaborative business software to access the potential of things like tacit interactions, which is the core activity of productive business work.

Says McAfee about applying Enterprise 2.0, compared to previous attempts to use the Web for business work:

The technologists of Enterprise 2.0 are trying hard not to impose on users any preconcieved notions about how work should proceed or how output should be categorized or structured.  Instead, they're building tools that let these aspects of knowledge work emerge.

This is a profound shift. Most current platforms, such as knowledge management systems, information portals, intranets, and workflow applications, are highly structured from the start, and users have little opportunity to influence this structure.  Wiki inventor Ward Cunningham highlights an important shortcoming of this approach: "For questions like 'What's going on in the project?' we could design a database.  But whatever fields we put in the database would turn out to be what's not important about what's going on in the project.  What's important about the project is the stuff you don't anticipate."

Of course, the practice right now in most enterprises is to have a great deal of structure and control in our IT systems.  The revolution that the PC originally ushered in, putting the choice and control of IT systems in any user's hands -- and making a mess for the IT department along the way -- has fortunately or possibly unfortunately been largely cleaned up.  Things are so tidy and well ordered that one could argue it's almost antiseptic, even antithetical, to the creativity and innovation that are hallmarks the most valuable business activities.

So, where can we start fixing this, without utterly losing positive control again?

The Web 2.0 in the Enterprise Acid Test

I've been thinking about a good way to quickly ascertain if an organization is effectively enabling emergent, free-form business systems.  You know, ones that provide valuable unintended outcomes and dynamically harness collective intelligence, to use all the good buzzphrases.  Because we see emergent systems like this occuring out on the Web all the time and so that's probably a good place to start looking to uncover the differences between the two environments.

One difference between the Web and the enterprise is simply the sheer availibiliity of freeform social software on the Web.  Want to start a blog to keep in touch with friends, family, or business partners?  There are thousands of sites to do that.  Want to create a wiki that has the family shopping list, the plan for the big class reunion, or a place to brainstorm with your colleagues?  Again, there are nearly unlimited places to go and start one.

However, enter your average corporation, load up the Intranet, and try to do any of this there.  Chances are good you probably can't.  I know, I've been asking everyone I meet lately, "Can you create blogs or wikis easily on your Intranet?"  (The usual answer: "Ummm, I'm pretty sure no.") Furthermore, even if you can, it's a good bet that those blogs or wikis aren't well integrated into the intranet search engine, making the valuable business information in them largely undiscoverable and inaccessible to emergent uses.  And it gets worse, blogs and wikis are become powerful.  In fact, both are rapidly turning into the software development platform for the non-technical person.  You only have to read about Rod Boothy's People and Project pages to start down the right path.

You can see in the diagram above that we're now learning that the barriers and harmful upfront control that traditional IT systems -- admittedly which most of us thought was a good thing for a long time -- are often actually hampering effective work and putting up barriers to the possibilities and potential of less structured, emergent systems that co-evolve with their users.  Finally, In the diagram, I do intend the slope of the lines to clearly indicate that both traditional and Web 2.0 systems get more structured over time, a significant lesson here is that we just put too much upfront structure into our IT systems today.  With all this in mind then, here are the key properties to strive for:

Important Properties of Web 2.0 in the Enterprise 

  • Freeform: Only minimal upfront structure, with simple lists, tags, and microformats at first, with more structure later if absolutely needed.
  • Zero Training/Simple: Any barrier to use means that automatically fewer people will use the application or its more complicated features.  The most successful sites on the Web require no training at all and guide the user to do the right things.  Your business systems can and should be similarly effortless to use.
  • Software as a Service: Online software, with its functionality and information available on any computer, home or work, anywhere in the world, day or night, is the most productive and useful software possible.  Installed native software just cannot compete with such persistent availibility.
  • Easily Changed:  If a user can't easily make the necessary change to the structure or the behavior of a system, he or she must have an expert -- usually in the IT deparment -- to do it, and get in line to wait for it, not to mention pay for it.  This simply won't do when there are ways to put much of this control back in the user's hands.  Using the structure of the Web to chunk up functionalty, the increasing use of feeds, badges, and widgets, will transfer many common IT tasks back to end-users in the next few years.
  • Unintended Uses:  Preconcieved notions about how an IT system will be used can cut it off from the most valuable uses down the road.  RSS syndication is teaching us a lot about this phenomenon on the Web, as well as mashups.  It's all about letting the structure and behavior of IT systems emerge naturally and organically. Having open APIs, easily wired together pieces, and loose and fluid tools helps enable this as well.  Discoverability of all of these is essential too.  Examples:  Not UDDI, search.  Not Web services, RSS. Not portals, widgets.
  • Social: Business software tends to harness collective intelligence and even e-mail is social to a certain degree (but darn it, it's push isn't it?).  Enterprise Web 2.0 software enables pull-based systems that enable people to come together and collaborate when they need to and are entirely uncoupled when they don't.  Enabling just-in-time, freeform collaboration is the key, and so is capturing and publishing the results to be reused and leveraged afterwards by others.  Wikis combined with enterprise search do all this automatically for example.

Demand IT Systems That Get Better With You and Your Collaborators

At the risk of sounding silly, and having seen with my own eyes the value of the this type of software in many if not most business situations, I am here putting out the call to demand easy access to intranet blogs and wikis.  Yes, demand them, and start using them, introduce your colleagues, and you're be surprised at what springs forth.  And lastly yes, Web 2.0 in the enterprise is certainly much more than just blogs and wikis, but if you don't have them, it's clearly an excellent place to start.


Free the Intranet Campaign: Demand Easy Access to Blogs and Wikis

Will you be demanding your enterprise blogs and wikis?  Or are you entirely happy with your IT systems the way they are now?