Enterprise 2.0: now we're talking

The software industry is littered with the bodies of failure that have cost businesses billions. There is no reason to believe that Enterprise 2.0 -- which pre-supposes a technology solution to an ill-defined or non-existent problem -- is any different.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

IMG_0029[Warning: extra long post]

It's always a joy when a post provokes a stack of other posts that add value to the discussion. My curmudgeonly rant about the 'what a crock' non-debate did the trick. I would have been deeply disappointed if it hadn't provoked a response. Before responding to the various arguments it's worth contextualizing where I'm coming from:

The software industry is littered with the bodies of failure. Those same failures have cost business billions of dollars. It provides the backdrop against which my colleague Mike Krigsman writes story after story how tech fails its intended buyers. There is no reason to believe that Enterprise 2.0 is any different. Check the video on my personal weblog: How communities can fail.

The expression 'Enterprise 2.0' is riddled with difficulty not least because it pre-supposes a technology solution to what in my view is an ill-defined or at times non-existent problem. That is compounded by the fact E2.0 was defined by an academic. Few people in the business world are prepared to take on academia. It's a dangerous game to play, especially when that game seems to fit so neatly around an attractive play.

I don't need to recrunch the 'social' thing but it is an important factor that in my mind amply illustrates the lack of intellectual rigor around solution creation. It is good to see that in the discourse even my sharpest critics have acknowledged the emphasis and use of 'social' as a dreadful mistake. That admission alone should provide topic thinkers with an escape hatch through which they can reframe this topic.

I wasn't there is person but take Timo Elliott's account as an accurate reflection of events. The problem is that while billed as a debate, there wasn't one. How could there be when only one side of the argument was represented? It should therefore be no surprise when critics such as I get up on hind legs and bellow at the crowd, often in unflattering terms.

So to the specifics.

Alex Williams characterizes my slap around the E2.0 face as a strawman argument. He bases his argument on the fact this was a conference where some success stories emerged. He invokes 'innovation' but provides no convincing examples and while acknowledging (via others) some of my arguments, doesn't convince in his assessment.  There are no blockbuster stories in his piece that demonstrate the value proposition which I wish to see.

A number of the articles I saw made mention of the 2.0 Adoption Council. Susan Scrupski is making a valiant attempt to draw business around the concepts of E2.0 with the Council's declared message:

We are a collection of managers in large enterprises that are charting the course for 2.0 adoption.  Although we may use different platforms and tools, we all share a common enthusiasm for bringing a new way of working to our representative companies.  We call ourselves “internal evangelists” and some say we have one of the most difficult, yet exciting jobs in the global marketplace.

Let's think about this for a moment. I have nothing but admiration for buy side groups but this one worries me. In the past I've seen plenty of user groups coalesce around specific vendors but never around a technology grouping of this kind. Whether that's a reflection of the relative immaturity of the E2.0 industry is a useful debating point and one that we should expand upon. When I think for instance about how PB Wiki has grown, matured and iterated beyond a simple wiki to become PBWorks, or how MindTouch is much more than DekiWiki, or how SocialText is now a rich platform for all kinds of collaboration, then I have to start thinking about what my tech investments are going to look like in say 5 years' time.

Arguing that you have a collection of large companies looking at this 'stuff' of itself doesn't impress. Remember Whirlpool and its claimed disastrous SAP implementation? Those pesky failures keep on a-coming at us. However, I can see how it is possible to argue that looking to the future in the context of a collection of technologies that might consolidate is a useful idea. But even then I'd be concerned that investment might be sub optimal given that what I really want to see is content in the context of business process.

Mark Fidelman put up a spirited defense challenging me:

People can convince themselves of a lot of things and Dennis is no exception.   His 1.0 thinking is itself a good case study in what the industry is facing these days in the executive ranks.  What Dennis fails to mention is how he’d measure enterprise 2.0 success.  Instead he rips apart the panelists without suggesting a single metric on how the industry should measure itself in order to be viewed a credible industry.

Unfortunately, this is sloppy thinking deserving of an undergrad C-. If Mark had done a modicum of research he would know that Oliver Marks, one of the genuinely experienced practitioners is a professional colleague. A little more digging would have elicited that in 2006 I helped Charlene Li, then of Forrester, now of Altimeter, come up with metrics and definitions around blogging. It wasn't perfect and today would be regarded as crude. A quick scan around my recent posts would have demonstrated that I am deeply engaged in finding ways to understand unstructured data in the context of collaborative business processes. On the basis of what I've seen so far, we're not remotely close to having a clear idea how this will work out though there are some interesting pointers where it might go. In addition and for the last two plus years, I've been advising and contributing to a couple of large communities. All of which means I'm up to my ears in metrics. I'm just not sure most of them are that useful or meaningful. By which I mean the obsession I see with brute force sizing metrics tells me little or nothing about quality which is where I know value lays.

Nenshad Bardoliwalla came up with the most complete and thoughtful analysis:

These definitions of Enterprise 2.0 and their juxtaposition against the definitions of Enterprise 1.0 are misguided.  I am certain based on my experience that the free form emergent world depicted as Enterprise 2.0 is NOT an evolution from the structured world of Enterprise 1.0, but rather, the two will exist in an intertwined tapestry that defines the full breadth of what today's enterprises need to look like.  It's extremely unhealthy for our industry to pit these two worlds against each other because they will perpetually co-exist.

I have some problems with the notion of perpetuality because there is (at least to my mind) an assumption that the process models we employ today will live forever. I also wonder whether Nenshad is falling into the trap of Pacioli speak I see among enterprise apps vendors. The assumption here is that the documents based, double entry transaction systems that dominate our thinking of current applications will live on well into the future. I have serious doubts about that. I know for instance that it isn't necessary to deliver double entry in order to record transactions. I also know that system of record keeping is an artefact of a bygone age. It is barely relevant in the complex world of today's decision making.

However, I do like the way he represents the interweaving of technologies as shown in the following diagram:

Given the direction I see at least some organizations going with E2.0 initiatives, I wonder whether we should focus more on the way E2.0 becomes subsumed into process. But to take this a step further, Nenshad nails what is at the heart of my ongoing skepticism. The lack of articulated areas where metrics can be identified:

Hard, quantified ROI.  You can only get that once you understand the goals of your organization, the current business processes in place that are set in place to achieve them, and the metrics used to instrument those processes.

Having said all that there are nagging doubts. E2.0 is a messy world. But then so is business. Nenshad talks about business processes and rightly so but if my observations are vaguely correct then I get the feeling that we should be designing E2.0 not so much around the existent processes we all know but around the barely repeatable processes that bedevil many organizations. It's a favorite hobby horse of mine but one that won't go away, simply because we try fill white spaces with social computing applications.

It is interesting to see for instance that SAP is now actively talking about BRP in the same breath as the slower moving core PLUS business analytics enriched by unstructured data. For that vendor, it is the only way they can get to a more complete 'picture.' The same is probably true of customers. For companies like Workday that started with a clean sheet, the situation is far simpler as they surround and embed tagging etc into their apps.

All of this is far removed from the current debate around social computing but it is a necessary next step if we are not to all become exhausted by the current discussion. To that extent, I hope my critics will see that far from being simply an equal opportunity flamethrower, there is substance behind what I say. No sooner do I say that than someone comes up with metrics that ARE useful.

Sameer Patel, Oliver Marks' colleague and regular correspondent with me was spurred into offering some case example insights:

How would the skeptics respond if they heard GetSatisfaction CEO Wendy Lea explain how Nike centrally manages its offsite community discussions for a whopping $8,000/ year? Or Altimeter Group Partner, R Ray Wang’s estimate that social computing concepts, when injected into process, actually reduces costs 2 to 4 X times over those very ERP-esq call center/CRM technology driven programs that Dennis and other skeptics are all too familiar with? Contrast that with the fact that traditional CRM systems on their own are often nothing more than glorified reporting systems that sales reps are mandated to use, in exchange for their commission check. Building on Rays assertion, now, with the strategic use of social computing concepts and technologies in context, these new approaches help nip customer support problems early and at a significantly reduced cost.

Bingo! Someone finally got the message. The whole of Sameer's post is well worth the reading since it carefully balances the views of folk like myself with what practitioners are seeing on the ground. In doing so, Sameer also issues a stark warning:

The moment of truth is about to hit this category over the next 12 months where executives are going to ask the hard questions about the applicability of these constructs and technologies to performance acceleration and to alignment with discrete business goals. Anything but a succinct answer that involves the right balance social + process and the estimated switching cost will result in E2.0 being tragically (and wrongly) regarded as yet another example of Micky Mouse technology that belongs on a server under someone desk, if at all.

Summary? It's time to up the game significantly yet challenges abound.

I am mindful that in this debate, we're not addressing the human element in a well reasoned manner. Stowe Boyd for instance is convinced that bottom up adoption is illustrative of a way by which traditional hierarchies might be destroyed for the better good of all. It's a lofty thought but one I believe is fundamentally flawed in many business situations. Two examples illustrate:

  • An ex-Goldmans person recently told me that when she joined, she was told: 'You're good Goldman material.' It turns out that Goldman Sachs, like many organizations operates a cult-ure. When she left, immense pressure was put upon her, similar to that you'd expect to hear from a Moonies escapee. Cult-ure cannot be ignored and is enormously resistant to change. I'd like to hear how organizations of all stripes (and not just the Usual Suspects) believe this can be overcome.
  • Last Friday I met a pal of mine who is in the business of implementing change. He argued that people don't like change. It is too disruptive for many. Think about all those contradictory stats that talk about dis-satisfaction with technology but then the same people would not change what they have. Familiarity is comforting. At a time when many people are more concerned about job security than shiny new toys, it should be no surprise that implementing an E2.0 project will have a slim chance of success without the sponsorship and active participation of top management.

Finally, and here I am putting on my social psychologist's hat. The nature-nurture debate that has rumbled on for more than 50 years among socpsych types shows no signs of abating. These key concepts have a place in our understanding of what can work but are largely ignored in the discourse.

In theory, you'd think that the 'nurturing' elements of community represent a natural way of helping us develop more collaborative methods of eliciting value. For those with open minds this is a slam dunk value proposition. Yet time and again we see the instinctive, nature driven flight to survival as departments defend turf. Until such times as we can reconcile those two poles, value driven collaboration is always going to be an uphill struggle. It's something I've wrestled with since 1983, often with only partial success. It is THE monkey on the back of all who try make these things reality.

Will we still be here in 50 years time arguing 'social' computing? I hope not.

Image I shot in Las Vegas

Editorial standards