Sea of cubicles - today's enterprise

On the eve of the main Boston Enterprise 2.0 Conference, it's worth taking a look at the state of the enterprise.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

On the eve of the main Boston Enterprise 2.0 Conference, it's worth taking a look at the state of the enterprise.

Despite being up to my eyeballs in collaboration strategy behind the firewall inside large companies this year I strive to stay objective and to avoid failing to see the wood for the trees. It's all too easy to get sucked into the moment and not to be grounded in what is actually going on today inside businesses and what their needs are, as opposed to believing fashionable business ideas have become reality.

2.0 technologies have enabled an extraordinary level of cross pollination and interconnectedness in our individual lives and are now very much mainstream, if we choose to leverage them. The now peaking wave of the first global social network, Facebook, has given millions their first taste of an interconnected social graph. Like AOL in the 1.0 wave, Facebook is a mass market 'walled garden' and has become for countless distributed families an online suburbia filled with baby pictures, holiday photos and images of food.

There are also countless online bulletin board forum websites for hobbyists - software such as vbulletin now also have wikis - and these sites are the main specialist locations online where more specific groupings of enthusiasts congregate to discuss pottery, horse saddles, carburetors or whatever their interest is. Some of these groups have parallel 'like'  pages for their members so they can get a broader social perspective on the people they primarily know for their specialist knowledge.

An unvarnished picture of the enterprise of 2011 shows the place where many of these enthusiasts work to make money to pay for their hobbies, and where things typically move at a glacial pace. You start by getting your door badge scrutinized by security before you're allowed access to an old Windows XP machine in your stall in the cube farm - followed by your email address and logins to enterprise systems on your several versions back but security compliant Internet Explorer browser.

The physical environment is typically fluorescent tube lighting, and the sound track is often the rustle of printers producing paper output of Powerpoint decks and documents to be discussed and documented with paper and pen in meetings. Daylight and/or an office are desirable perks. Facebook is known as 'Social Notworking' and is an opportunity to catch up with friends and family on your smartphone...unless you work in marketing, in which case you're trying to figure out how to get maximum prospect reach from 'free' online social media.

Facebook is the lowest common denominator way to informally keep tabs on what people you know are doing and have lightweight interactions with them both at work and socially, while Linkedin has done a good job of creating more formal professional topic discussion groups.

The typical enterprise is now increasingly global (and you can make a strong argument for the idea that the largest ones are more powerful than some nation states in our current era).  Working in the global enterprise collaboration world, you see many of the attributes of international diplomacy, with hostile borders and/or friendly alliances between departments and typically hidden but bitter rivalries. (The difference is citizens are free to emigrate - get a new job somewhere else - from these often long term battles).

There's a vibrant online world - ZDNet included - where information surfaces and flashes by every day, and it's all too easy to get sucked into the moment and not see the bigger picture. Twitter is probably the giddiest of these online arenas, with all sorts of posturing and hubris to accompany 'first past the post' publishing of reactions to information and business concept alchemy.

What many Twitterists don't seem to realize is that potential employers sometimes look at your Twitter page and get freaked out if they see you are tweeting every 15 minutes. Unless you're a genius you can't be doing much else, is the logic, even if what you're saying is smart and of the moment. Using Twitter can be like looking out of the side windows of a fast moving car instead of focusing on the road ahead, and the medium can cause us to fail to take a step back and be more objective.

The challenge in the enterprise, as we reach information saturation, is intelligent uses for all the technology options at our disposal. I've been ruminating on the difference between Surowieki's 'The Wisdom of  Crowds'  (a book from 2004 I believe to be deeply flawed) and 'Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds' an 1841 history of 'popular follies' by Charles Mackay that's still in print and widely read in financial circles.

"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." is a well known quote from that book.

There's no question coherent strategy to harness the power of modern collaborative technologies will yield substantial increases in efficiency and business performance - I've seen it happen - the challenge is getting people to think in the ways that will enable that to be achieved.

Free consumer social products such as Facebook and Twitter have created perceptions in society, whether people are users or not, of 'social media' being a trivial, light world of communication where people self organize.  As individuals we can choose to participate socially or not depending on our mood, but orchestrating people working together more efficiently using similar technologies within the enterprise requires very different approaches, which are very dependent on context and goals.

It's not hard to turn on the information spigot within business through deployed technologies, the challenge is in filtering information to expose it to the right people at the right times and guiding intelligent usage for maximum benefit. There's tactically a strong element of information flow plumbing in order to reroute the way people access and interact with it. If you have too many 'personal digital lifestyle' documentors in your organization they may frighten off all the other folks you are guiding towards more efficient ways of working.

Getting people to think as individuals in order to contribute more intelligently to their place of work is a timeless holy grail, and while modern Enterprise 2.0 technologies enable this thinking the herd mentalities and seductive pressures of the narcissitic consumer web can pollute the best of intention.

At the Boston Enterprise 2.0 Conference next week I'm chair of the 'People, Culture and Internal Communications' track where I'll be discussing the above and more, and blogging the conference here.

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