Savviness or reality in the E2.0 world?

Are we at a philosophical divide over what 'social anything' delivers?
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor on

OK - so Stowe Boyd gets my attention with a linkbait argument:

And Dennis has been making his displeasure about the use of the term ‘social business’ known, but not by arguing about the principles involved. Instead,Howlett has adopted a ‘savviness’ cant: he isn’t arguing, he uses his savviness instead of arguing.

This followed a tweet exchange between myself and Ray Wang on the notion of 'social business,' a term I believe is fraught with problems and for which I can find almost no interest in the enterprise.

Stowe uses arguments from Jay Rosen and others to define my position as one that:

Howlett is being purely oppositional, and he makes no first principle arguments. His rhetoric — like the airy-fairy wisecrack — is dismissive of the idea of new ideas, the notion that some new insight could come from reconsidering the world based on new information. See The Social Business Naysayers, for example:

Howlett is not alone in opposition to new ideas in the software enterprise space. Andrew McAfee, who is the leading advocate of the Enterprise 2.0 meme is similarly dismissive: see Andrew McAfee on ‘Social Business’ versus ‘Enterprise 2.0’, One More Time, in which McAfee tries to make the case that ‘social business’ is a very old idea as a means of dismissing it.

The reason I see these arguments as airy fairy is because I find them to be like a Chinese take out - filling at first taste but ultimately devoid of nutritional value. (No offense meant to Chinese take out establishments - just sharing my experience.)

It's interesting that Stowe corrals me with Andrew McAfee, especially since I have been critical of Andrew's Enterprise 2.0 moniker. Who knows - we may yet become allays?

What Stowe clearly misses - as do all those who think I am agin' anything E2.0 etc - is that most of what I see is airy fairy nonsense pimped by marketing/PR types who would struggle to understand the concept of ROI let alone enunciate value in enterprise software. The counter argument for those proposing the 'new, new social anything' is that no-one thought to ask the ROI of email so why argue about social tools? Duh? That's supposed to be a valid argument for refusing to provide ROI metrics or measures for its replacement via social tools? No way José.

Why should that matter? As many of my enterprise colleagues already know, organizations of every stripe are struggling to come to terms with gob loads of shelfware accumulated over many years. Why would they buy into a fresh concept when they've barely derived value from what they already have? Why would they believe a new, new thing will deliver value when ERP/CRM, the last Big Thing, has delivered so little value?

The counter argument is that adopting 'social anything' represents a way of reflecting reality that has often eluded the antiseptic transaction systems we've all spent years trying to make run and deliver that ever elusive ROI. The theory runs this approach provides a get out of jail free card because the social provides direct links with customers, employees and partners that are self evident to the business analyst. Maybe.

The problem is many headed but can be summed up this way:

  • CIOs tasked with making all these things work have become jaded
  • CXOs have become jaded with IT's ability to deliver value
  • CIOs have a short life expectancy so will deliver the thing that gives them the next Big Hit on their resumé and they dont count social anything among that raft of technologies
  • The admission that socialising the enterprise is hard because adoption is a complex problem the mavens have little clue how to parse
  • The asymmetric relationship between Twiiter/Facebook noise and reality on the ground as outlined in the NYT

It's not hard to see how this leads to a mess of problems. The 'social anything' crew say they can solve all and any problems, largely by bypassing IT. Really? So we're left with the prospect of departments running amok with solutions that may (or may not) pass governance muster, swamp the networks or lead to any number of wide ranging rogue activities where there is the very real risk that corporate security is compromised. And that's going to fly? Not in my lifetime. Example:

Recently SocialText talked about a safe passage offering for Yammer users:

Eugene Lee, SocialText’s CEO responds: “When comes the time to pay for administering users, customer don’t like that. They feel it is a bad way to do business. We’re never going to hold a gun to our customer’s heads.”

When I hear things like that I have to wonder whether the new breed of apps/service providers understand the enterprise or its constraints. But then I am not against these ideas per se though it seems I have problems of my own.

When I do see value or technology that has the clear potential to deliver value then I am more than happy to sing its praises. Then what happens? Some people think I am pimping a solution. Sheesh - I guess when you take a postion then you're not 'allowed' to move out of that zone. And therein lies one of the big problems with many of these arguments.

The mavens start out with a stated position from which they cannot retreat, retrench or deviate. I on the other hand have always been willing to accept that my position might be flawed and am prepared to moderate that to reflect new realities. I am more than aware that my initial understanding of a technology or solution might easily miss the point. The problem with 'social anything' is that I cannot find a single enterprise buyer who cares less about that as a concept.

Instead I find plenty of buyers wanting to solve business problems. They could care less about the solution as long as it delivers what they need. But...I find it very difficult to locate anyone wanting to buy the 'social anything' mantra. As I said on my personal weblog:

Much of what passes for social anything has connotations associated with social science. Here we need to face what socsci is about: it is the study of inequality, often from a post neo-Marxist perspective. Combine that thought with notions of revolution and can you imagine any C-level person giving you the time of day?

That's the underpinning problem that Stowe and others' arguments secretly reveal. While, as a social scientist by education, I admire Stowe's revolutionary stance as the extreme end of what might happen, he is making an argument that grates. Add in the fact we're constantly told (without major proofs) that the social is dominating our world and is it any wonder that CXOs scratch their heads?

Instead, I prefer the evolutionary approach that Martijn Linssen proposes. It makes a lot more sense in the context of what CXOs and CIOs are managing.

In closing, I'll counter Stowe's resurrection of the ghost of Christmas past aka Thomas Kuhn. Stowe says:

Thomas Kuhn argues — in The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions — that the distance between these sorts of divergent world views is simply too great to be spanned, since the words and values of the differing groups are incommensurable: they simply are talking past each other. But, inevitably, the evolution of ideas leads to a Darwinian selection process, with those ideas that are most productive will survive.

Savviness is simply a technique to cloud the issues, and to persuade those shopping in the marketplace of ideas to defer rationale discussion: it sheds no new light. At the best, it is side commentary; at its worst, it is mockery, and often, intentionally so.

Yeah - I know that stuff. It was part of my philosophy minor. But if you want to hang your hat on one philosopher then be prepared to hear the critique. As one observer says:

This is a caricature. Progress has linear and non-linear elements – it is the linear version that is the whipping boy of critics who hate all constructive endeavors. Further, we must distinguish numerical progress from progress as a value: here, progress is a priori numerical and may be, according to some one a posteriori valuational. However, such valuation is external and not at all intrinsic. New paradigms are breaks and incorporate elements of the old.

...i.e - they are evolutionary.

The long term truth, I suggest, is somewhere in the middle. A place where Stowe and I will happily agree. In the meantime, can we please work on more productive ideas? Like solving problems in which decision makers and check signers are interested and prepared to spend hard dollars in return for a clearly understood return?

Image courtesy of Martijn Linssen

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