Web 2.0 in the enterprise: language matters

As we approach the second Office 2.0 I find myself troubled by the lack of concrete examples of how Web 2.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

As we approach the second Office 2.0 I find myself troubled by the lack of concrete examples of how Web 2.0 technologies are impacting the enterprise. There are a good number of small, tactical case studies out there but you have to ask if anything is really changing. Dave Margulius tried to get under the skin of senior executives at a recent Churchill Club panel discussion. Randall Spratt CIO at McKesson acknowledged the utility of new technologies that help home workers retain a s sense of social inclusion while Doug Schwinn, CIO Hasbro talked about the using of IM as an essential tool for his developer community. But no-one is coming up with examples where you can say that business is fundamentally changing as a result of the technologies 'we' think of as comprising Web 2.0. Why might this be? Are CXOs Luddites as Vinnie Mirchandani implies:

The CIOs in the Dave panel above clearly are using emerging tools - in the context of helping employees collaborate. Show them solutions to their problems and they are interested.

But talk to the CIO about individuals as sports fans or voters for a particular candidate and the interest drops (unless it is a CIO of a sports team or a political campaign).

...or is there something else in play here?

My personal sense is that those of us keen to see these technologies add value are using the wrong language in the business context. Much of what I see in Web 2.0 and particularly the discussions around social media appear aimed at two things: the democratization of information and consumerisation. Neither of these things are bad but they don't play well to the way business organizes itself or responds to its primary objective - returning shareholder value. In order to meet its primary objective business has to satisfy consumer demand. As Chris Selland said in a Google Group conversation: "Without consumers, there is no entrerprise." So true - but then CXOs see the world very differently from consumers. Here's an example:

JP Rangaswami recently talked about Facebook as providing business benefit:

Facebook provides a good relationship-conversation-transaction base as foundation. It assists you in finding people and skill and expertise, in creating communities of interest, in subscribing to news and events, in supporting polls and questions and discussion boards. It also captures quite a lot of profiling and preference and behavioural information.

If I had something like Facebook functionality within an enterprise, I could do things like draw collaboratively-filtered lessons from watching the apps that people used. Why does person A have an app set that differs so widely from that of person B? What can I learn from that difference? What can person A and person B learn from that difference?

JP is a senior executive at BT and there is much with to agree in these thoughtful statements. But then he adds (my emphasis added):

I could do things like plot out the routes that real information took, subverting hierarchies and tunnelling under garden walls.

There is no question in my mind that enterprise silos and hierarchies represent a considerable barrier to value delivery. The problems of breaking down power structures are well known and is something that has been debated over many years. It is the language that's changed. So while collaboration as a concept is well understood, the current discussions create cultural problems for enterprise decision takers. Check this further post by JP where he talks about the social element (emphasis added):

Applications are important. The platform’s “openness” to new and changing applications is important. But let’s not make the same mistake that the IT profession has been making for decades. It’s not about the apps, it’s about the people.

Facebook is a community of people. All dressed up with everywhere to go. The world is their oyster. Or maybe I should now be saying “worlds are their oysters”…..

As a social scientist by education, I welcome the language of the social but ask a CXO and I doubt you'll get such a warm reception. That is because social scientists are primarily addressing issues around inequality, a topic you'd be hard pressed to find on many board agendas.

I sense at least part of the problem lies in the reality that business sits at the other end of the spectrum from the Long Tail enthused individual, with all the freedoms those individuals enjoy. This is especially true in large enterprises where the need to exercise controls inevitably places restrictions on what can and cannot be done.

In my view, talk of democratization, subversion, disruption, community and other value laden terms flies in the face of what business believes it has to do. It is hard to imagine a CXO viewing the language used as anything short of implying an anarchic environment. In one recent engagement, I saw execs visibly wincing when some of these terms were used. In the process driven enterprise, talk of that kind does not compute.

Others will argue that success with social media at places like Sun, Microsoft and SAP makes lie to my argument. Maybe so but these are technology companies and you'd expect them to be at the forefront of adoption. Is it making any appreciable difference to their business models? More important, does it have a direct influence on shareholder value? I'd argue that in a broad sense, the answer is a resounding no. On the other hand, Oracle, which has not been as gung-ho with blogs as others is outperforming its competitors from a share price performance perspective.

One of the main social benefits punted by protagonists is that they help foster positive, internal change. If true then I'd expect to see that reflected in business performance or changes in strategy.  But I don't. Individuals are doing great things. Craig Cmehil, a SAP evangelist created a pilot that integrated Zoho with SAP. The basic work was done in a matter of days yet I don't see many takers. Why would they when this kind of thing subverts Duet, a project SAP and Microsoft spent years working upon? I believe part of the answer lays in the difficulty management has in coming to terms with disruptive technology and its implications for how business is organized as expressed through the current use of language. Collaboration = OK, disruption = bad.

Language is not the only hurdle. Fidelity Investments provides an interesting case study of a successful project where the hurdles/challenges are spelled out:

Compliance, Fear, Age, Risk, Culture, Enterprise Content Management, Enterprise Search, Enterprise Docuement Management

Started as a grass roots movement and continues to lack strong management understanding. Three years ago most people did not know what a wiki was and bottom up educational processes are slow to move up.

An AT&T collaborative project reflects similar issues:

Social, Cultural, and Political Issues are always present and must be addressed over time

Open versus Closed Organization can also create problems since power comes from the controlling of information.

Leadership is essential from the high end as well as topical SME's

Fidelity and AT&T are but two of a small clutch of publicly available cases at Cases2.com, a project kicked of by Harvard's Professor Andrew McAfee a leading light in the Enterprise 2.0 movement.

If social computing is to succeed in the enterprise there is a need for us to better understand the changes it implies.  In my view, a change in the way language is used and redefined for business would go a long way to stemming management fears and fostering an environment where change is seen as a good.

Editorial standards