NEXT09: deconstructing the enterprise gulf

Attending NEXT09 was a breath of fresh air for me. As seems to be the way, there's always a good showing by controversial polemicists.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Attending NEXT09 was a breath of fresh air for me. As seems to be the way, there's always a good showing by controversial polemicists. You won't for example get two more strident and different speakers than Jeff Jarvis and Andrew Keen.

As an enterprisey guy, Keen's assessment of how things are changing is more appealing. It has a sense of realism and is a call for debate that I find is missing from much of what I hear around Web/Enterprise X.0 topics.

In most discussions I hear you are either a disciple of Andrew MacAfee's emergent enterprise or cast as a Luddite. Neither of those positions is appropriate because emergent means it has yet to materialize. In drawing such harsh battle lines real debate is stifled about the issues that really matter: survival and sustainability in an uncertain world.

Internally I struggle with much of what I hear about Enterprise 2.0. Not because it is fundamentally flawed but because it feels misguided and out of touch with what I see around me. Jarvis for example bangs on about 'What would Google do?' - holding them up as some sort of business paragon. Yes Google is important but in enterprise terms? It's a minnow, an afterthought. People who live in this bubblicious world find it disarming when I say that Google is a bit player. It's almost as though I've pooped on the front door mat.

There is a sense in which we're caught up in a mass of contradictions that we barely see let alone understand. For example, the race to the bottom of 'free' everything is a massively flawed idea. It simply isn't sustainable to think you can build applications with any enterprisey rigor on fresh air. It's not even a case of developer reward. The notion that because tools and services are low cost it is somehow OK to believe enterprise class development can be achieved at almost zero cost is wishful thinking. CODA has been able to push out CODA2Go in lightening time and low cost (by enterprise standards) because Salesforce.com spent 10 years getting the platform right.

Even so, I can almost hear the MacAfites roaring the common epithet: 'You don't get it.' What about Stowe Boyd, the best walking example I know of an enterprise's worst anarchic nightmare? He is starting to acknowledge there is something different about enterprise that needs taking into account. He seemed genuinely surprised (my interpretation) at some of the cultural challenges facing large companies attempting a transition to more collaborative forms of operation.

Where I think his research findings are most worrying is in the notion that it will take 10 years to bring the transformation to this utopian world he and others are envisaging. If that's right then don't bother. Colleagues have been talking about these exact same issues for 10 years and more. The problems are identical to what they were all those years ago. Culture, belief systems, control in all its forms. I'd be far more impressed in seeing the solutions framed for providing a sustainable future. That argument is almost entirely missing from the discourse of today although Intel is definitely one to watch in this regard. What's more, in 10 years we will have been through or be in another economic cycle during which you can almost be 100% certain that vendors will have become as dumb, fat and happy as some were last year. Rinse and repeat?

The difference today is that we have a chance to air these topics with people who do understand the problems - the educational and organizational social psychologists who have battled with the conflicts and politics of organization. Where are their voices included in this often tech led discussion?

This is not about some trough of disillusionment. It's about failing to provide satisfactory public answers to the questions that are inferred time and again. My best example comes from Kevin Eyres of LinkedIn who talked about the introduction of email at Compaq in the early 1900s and the fear that someone would do something silly. This is a frequently reprised war story by those struggling to introduce social computing to big business. Nowhere in the public discussion do I see anyone asking the far more fundamental question: Why do we keep making the same mistakes? What is it about the nature of organization that drives fear rather than an ability to see benefits?Instead I hear cart before horse thinking most often expressed as 'change management.' No, no and no. Please understand first the real problem you're facing. Because you might find it isn't about change.

The closest we got was Umair Haque's unpicking of industrial age economics and the 'new.' Many people found his presentation lacked pazzazz. I agree. This is not about being a showman or entertainer but about addressing deep and serious questions. The kinds of question that large enterprise wants answering. A song and dance routine played to the E2.0 tune doesn't cut it.

The fears attached to a loosening of the control mechanisms are often cited but that is no more satisfactory than it was 15 years ago during the dawn of email. Eyres came close to providing an answer when he talked about the co-existence of the informal and formal hierarchies inside business. But he swerved away from providing any explanation as to HOW this happens or if it should. Then there is the parallel problem of assuming that Google is the benchmark against which innovation occurs.

As I listened to elevator pitches and young hopefuls with unquestionably great ideas I could not help but wonder why they are drawing their cue from Google, a company that isn't open, is difficult to trust at the enterprise level and which still remains a one trick pony. Is it the case that commenters with well honed oratory skills are successfully sucking the rest of us into believing in this make believe Googley world? It seems so. Listening to Jyri Engestrom, Jaiku's founder and now with Google, it seemed weird to be talking in terms of 'open-ness' and Google in the same breath until I heard the magic word: trust. So we all trust Google and it is on THAT foundation we're building a new world. OK.

But when I asked one person who was oozing Googleyness: "Where are they? Do they sponsor these gigs?" it suddenly dawned on the person that not only does Google rarely involve itself in these types of event, the Googlers who show up rarely say anything that isn't already in the public domain. It is the almost blind acceptance of this baffling paradox I can't fathom.

Even so, I have to applaud the genuine invention I did see and hope to heck it appears in enterprise thinking sometime soon. An example. TechCrunch's Robin Wauters introduced me to Renato Valdes Olmos, co-founder of hellomynameise.com. Currently in late beta this startup is solving the business card problem we all share. How to input random contact data and then keep it up to date. A combination of RFID, cell phone connectivity and social computing principles converge in this incredibly simple yet complex and alluring solution. I want one. It's got all the ingredients of being an enterprisey smash hit.

Given that next week marks SAP's annual SAPPHIRE customer conference and will attract some 8,000 people, isn't this EXACTLY what business folk need instead of yet another conference bag? I can (almost) guarantee SAP won't have that type of goody on offer. Because the flip side of this open world to which Jarvis et al wish us to go is the dominant model: closed, proprietary and not invented here. That's not sustainable either but dissecting that is an altogether different discussion. I'll kick it off with this thought: SAPPHIRE is billed as:

SAPPHIRE® 2009 and the ASUG Annual Conference are together again in 2009, bringing unparalleled insights and opportunities from the world’s premier business technology events to one place. For industry professionals who want to maximize their conference experience, this is the must-attend business outing of the year.

By bringing SAPPHIRE and the ASUG Annual Conference together, industry professionals gain access to the full spectrum of SAP offerings and the entire ASUG community—a comprehensive and collaborative experience that will drive business results across all levels.

Tell me what part about that not being a sales fest are you not getting? They're not alone. IBM, Oracle and Microsoft all do the same. So here's the difference. Yes there were pitches at NEXT09 but mostly in the context of attracting funds but more importantly, the introduction of ideas. That's what's missing at enterprise conferences. New, fresh...dare I say it...innovative ideas.

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