Nine ideas for IT managers considering Enterprise 2.0

As browser-based software, SaaS, and Web 2.0 continue to make some inroads in the enterprise, it's the lack of useful pioneer reports that hampers the early adoptors. Sure, many of us witness the often amazing trends taking place out on the Web in the form of mountains of user generated content and communication and collaboration occuring en masse via blogs and spaces. But the big question is still with us: Can the motivations and context that makes the latest generation of software on the Web so compelling, and hence popular, be made just as meaningful in the enterprise?
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

As browser-based software, SaaS, and Web 2.0 continue to make some inroads in the enterprise, it's the lack of useful pioneer reports that hampers the early adoptors.  Sure, many of us witness the often amazing trends taking place out on the Web in the form of mountains of user generated content and communication and collaboration occuring en masse via blogs and spaces.  But the big question is still with us: Can the motivations and context that makes the latest generation of software on the Web so compelling, and hence popular, be made just as meaningful in the enterprise?

Meet the 2.0 Family: Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, and Office 2.0

As we get deeper into the second decade of the Web, we've been inundated with the 2.0 generation of everything, hopefully all learning from the mistakes of the 1.0 generation.  In addition to Web 2.0 itself however, we have two more important enterprise software trends: Office 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0, coined by Ismael Ghalimi and Andrew McAfee respectively.  Office 2.0 represents the increasing use of browser-based software in the office, while Enterprise 2.0 is more Web 2.0-ish in that it specifically describes the use of freeform, emergent, social software to conduct collaboration and share knowledge.

For its part, Office 2.0 represents freedom from the tyranny of installing software and updates, remembering where you keep your data and your programs (it's all in the cloud with Office 2.0), and dealing with pesky things like admin rights, software versions, virus scanning, and more.  Though browser-based software still has its limitations (like what happens when the server is down or you don't have a connection), it's increasingly clear that the network is going to become the pre-eminent location for most meaningful business software, if it hasn't happened already.

Enterprise 2.0 is more problematic in that it directly addresses the known weaknesses of existing IT models and platforms for helping people work together.  Specifically this means the fact that corporate information tends to be non-shared by default, that the easiest productivity tools to use are the ones that have very little collaboration built-in, and that the information that does exist is often impossible to find and is often structured in some formal, centrally controlled way.  Enterprise 2.0 takes on existing ingrained habits and behaviors, and recommends a carefully thought out but ultimately comprehensive change in the way we normally work together.  Specifically, this means being more social, creating only essential structure and organization at first, and to prefer the use tools like blogs and wikis that are eminently shareable, searchable, and linkable.

Like Web 2.0, where visual technologies like Ajax are often the most obvious and easiest to implement aspect, Office 2.0's SaaS trappings are an important stride forward and are increasingly popular for a growing number of organizations.  And like Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0 has challenges in that it tends to go against the learned behavior of many workers to keep information private until it is ready, to prevent seeing how the "sausage is really made."  Certainly, increased transparency, some loss of control over information flow, and outright abuse of low-barrier Intranet publishing tools gives enterprise IT and business leaders pause for thought.

But most organizations already understand that spreadsheets, presentation files, e-mails, word processing documents, and private databases are where much of the valuable institutional information is.  While centralized "big IT" systems do a lot of routine record keeping, the heart and soul of an organization in the form of corporate strategies, product development plans, project notes, key performance metrics, and so on is really kept in e-mail folders and user's directories.  And while some of it must remain under strict control, particularly in public companies, much of it is unnessarily -- and usually to a fault -- hidden, unreused, and unexploited.

Fortunately, though Enterprise 2.0, a corporate mirror held up to the bustle and vibrancy of mass information discovery and sharing on the Web, has a lot of challenges ahead of it, we are starting to see IT managers considering it.  And while I get to watch The Irregulars debate it on a regular basis, some good information is finally coming out on how to deal with the cultural, organizational, technical, and people issues around Enterprise 2.0.  Here's the list I've put together so far, I hope you enjoy it.

  1. It's about ease-of-use, first and foremost.  As a recent Internet list rightly proclaimed, "EASY is the most important feature of any website, web app, or program."  Blogs, wikis, and other Enterprise 2.0 apps have to be the easiest thing to use.  Preferably much easier than the tools users have now or they won't start using them.  While many people use the office productivity software they have now because they have no choice, the fact is, they are quite familiar with them and they're too busy to learn new tools even if they work better.  So if you want adoption, you're very limited in the learning tax you can impose. And hopefully your selected Enterprise 2.0 platform will encourage the right behavior (extremely easy and obvious ways to tag, link, etc.)  Just remember that every good Web application on the Internet requires essentially zero training, if it didn't do this users would just go to the next easiest tool.  That means spare, clean application that aren't encrusted with features, gizmos, and links.  And make sure the software makes the right things easy to do and the wrong things hard.
  2. Change requires motivation.  Provide it.  I just said in the previous point to require no training for Enterprise 2.0 tools.  But that doesn't mean you shouldn't explain what's going on.  Changing the default stance from keeping most information a worker has private to making much of it public is a big alteration in behavior and expectation.  Explain the reasoning behind retaining more knowledge, in making it public, searchable, and organizing it via tagging.  Describe the benefits of being able to access much fresher and more up-to-date information elsewhere in the organization because their colleagues are managing more of their projects, tasks, and other work via social tools.  Whether this is via internal e-mail updates, online screencasts, corporate podcasts, or Intranet home page news, makes little difference as long as you do it.  Get the word out, evangelize, and don't forget to explain how and where blogs, wikis -- or whatever your selected Enterprise 2.0 tool is -- can be easily accessed by those in the organization.
  3. Emergent doesn't mean a blank slate.  Empty blogs and wikis usually stay empty blogs and wikis.  And keep in mind that all systems tend towards disorder naturally, so the freeform aspect of Enterprise 2.0 may tend towards anarchy faster than other systems without some initial, elemental structure.  Wikipedia provides article formats, the blogging world has structured blogging, and even things like MySpace tend to have conventions that are widely understood.  Provide useful templates for common activities and reference material such as projects, tasks, resource management, policies, procedures, standards, and so on.  You still have to keep template layouts and template usage simple; excessive structure tends to kill the golden goose of contributions quickly.  But a little basic structure goes a long way and prevents contributors from having to figure out how to structure all the white space and provide a simple layer of consistency.
  4. Discoverability isn't an afterthought, it's the core.  Google and other search engines made the Web usable.  The enterprise has not caught up, largely because most enterprise information doesn't allow a hyperlink structure, and links aren't encouraged very much when it does.  McAfee recommends setting up blog and wiki directories as well as good enterprise search based on link ranking (which is what Google does to make the right information come up in the first few pages of search results.)  Enterprise 2.0 tools should also extract folksonomies and other structural information (from microformats and XML tags) into discoverability mechanisms like tags lists and clouds, making user organization schemes obvious, public, and emergent.  One easy trap to fall into is to assume your existing enterprise search will do the job.  It probably won't, so be sure that it's well integrated into your Enterprise 2.0 effort, perhaps by offering a blog or wiki search option. Provide your own search engine in the tools only if you must.
  5. It's OK to fear loss of control and misuse. But it's critical to put the fires out instead of preventing them altogether.  Rod Boothby recently put out a good list of online software myths, and the first one is "the anarchy on the open net is going to translate into chaos internally."  Rod believes that most people will avoid misusing Enterprise 2.0-style tools because they won't want to suffer the consequences of looking foolish in front of their colleagues.  And while I believe that may be true for most folks, there will always be those that just don't know any better.  And there will be accidents.  This boils down to having some form of moderation, either human or automated, to ensure that the level of discourse remains at some bare minimimum acceptable standard.  Again, like most social forums, this usually requires a very light touch since the chilling effect of publically censoring someone on an Intranet is likely to ripple through an organization.  But the corporate skin will just have to get thicker too, like it does on the Internet where all Wikipedia entries are said to be "edited mercilessly" clearly on each editing screen.  Intervene only when absolutely necessary and be ready to play the master diplomat with senior management.  Yes, letting things "hang out" more than before will take some getting used to but the premise is that it's worth it.
  6. Dynamic, effective advocates are a key enabler.  Want to ensure a low rate of adoption?  Give tools to folks that aren't motivated, energetic, and have a positive attitude towards your new tools.  Finding vocal advocates that really care about your Enterprise 2.0 pilot project might be hard but if you find one, like any IT project, it can make the results happen an order of magnitude faster and easier.  External advocates tend to have more credibility, can point to demonstrable, concrete results, and can also provide a rich vein of experience for those that follow after (and yes, hopefully already captured in an online, shared forum somewhere in the enterprise.)  The botton line: The time spent finding an internal advocate is invariably worth it, even if it takes a while.  A high-profile executive sponsor that obviously uses the tools can also help in a big way.
  7. The problems will be with the business culture, not the technology.  While you have to cross your t's and dot your i's by making sure you've picked effective, low-barrier, corporate-grade Enterprise 2.0 tools, the real issue, day in and day out, with getting Enterprise 2.0 to take off is to educate, evangelize, demonstrate, and most importantly, evolve the interface and structure of your tools until you pick the right formula that resonates with your audience.  Making it easy for users to give you lots of feedback (again, hopefully very easy to do) is critical and listening to it is even more important.  Give users what they want within reason or they'll use the tools they prefer.  This is the lesson that the Web has also taught us but that lack of software competition on the enterprise has stifled.  And if they don't see immediate benefit from use of the tools, be ready to spend time to fully understand why.
  8. Triggering an Enterprise 2.0 ecosystem quickly is likely an early activity driver.  This can mean a lot of things but the link structure of Web tools allows information to quickly flow, circulate, and mesh together.  You can leverage this in a almost infinite number of ways to drive user activity, interesting content, create awareness of what the company is "thinking", and more.  For example, create a blog for every employee in the company and mail the link to them with instructions on how to use it.  Create a social bookmarking site for the enterprise where everyone can see what is being bookmarked by everyone else that day.  Create an internal Wikipedia that contains a seperate copy of all Intranet content and let users edit away.  The possibilities are endless and provide a much greater number of "entry points" where people can get started with these tools.
  9. Allow the tools to access enterprise services.  Moving the massive volumes of data and the growing landscape of services into Enterprise 2.0 tools, mashup style, is likely a large value add, though again, we mostly have the lessons of the Web to help us here.  Allowing the output of SQL queries to be inserted into wikis when they load, calling Web services or using Flash badges that access data resources can turn Enterprise 2.0 tools from pure knowledge management into actual hybrids of software and data. Uploading spreadsheets and other documents should be easy too.  And the reverse should be true as well, getting data back out into traditional tools including Office documents, PDFs, and XML must be easy to inspire trust and lower barriers to use.
There's undoubtedly many more ideas on how to apply Enterprise 2.0 but these are likely to be many of the important ones when planning and implementing an Enterprise 2.0 project.  From monitoring and content moderation, to keeping the tools open and making the data they contain searchable, there's a balance required to keep good things happening and bad things from occuring.  Just like the Web, sharing and searching can cut both ways and you're the lifeguard that lets people in the pool, but prevents them from drowning.  And be sure to drop me a line if you actively working on an Enterprise 2.0 project, I'd love to hear more.

This is a lot to worry about but there's certainly more.  What else do you think IT managers need to know about Enterprise 2.0? 

Editorial standards