The nonsense of Enterprise 2.0

Its been interesting to read some of the blog posts that have come across my radar during the last few weeks about Enterprise 2.0. The ZDnet bloggers in particular have been busy here (and my own response), here (actually a guest post by Sameer Patel), but even Andrew McAfee jumped in to respond to some earlier posts by others, including my own.

Another ZDnet blogger, Dennis Howlett, also threw a curve ball with his Enterprise 2.0 is crock post. Howlett challenges the whole Enterprise 2.0 idea and concludes:

Like it or not, large enterprises – the big name brands – have to work in structures and hierarchies that most E2.0 mavens ridicule but can’t come up with alternatives that make any sort of corporate sense. Therein lies the Big Lie. Enterprise 2.0 pre-supposes that you can upend hierarchies for the benefit of all. Yet none of that thinking has a credible use case you can generalize back to business types – except: knowledge based businesses such as legal, accounting, architects etc. Even then – where are the use cases? I’d like to know. In the meantime, don’t be surprised by the ‘fail’ lists that Mike Krigsman will undoubtedly trot out – that’s easy.

In the meantime, can someone explain to me the problem Enterprise 2.0 is trying to solve?

I said at the time via Twitter that his post reminded me of the infamous nonsense of ‘knowledge management’ paper, which concluded:

The inescapable conclusion of this analysis of the ‘knowledge management’ idea is that it is, in large part, a management fad, promulgated mainly by certain consultancy companies, and the probability is that it will fade away like previous fads. It rests on two foundations: the management of information – where a large part of the fad exists (and where the ‘search and replace marketing’ phenomenon is found), and the effective management of work practices. However, these latter practices are predicated upon a Utopian idea of organizational culture in which the benefits of information exchange are shared by all, where individuals are given autonomy in the development of their expertise, and where ‘communities’ within the organization can determine how that expertise will be used.

The nonsense paper was interesting because it helped to reveal some truth about why information management projects dressed up as knowledge management often failed to live up to expectations, but ultimately is was also a disappointment because it did nothing to explain how to respond to the latent need that information management was not meeting. Similarly there is a lot of truth to Howlett’s call for Enterprise 2.0 to step up and come clean, but on the other hand I think he is mistaken in thinking that Enterprise 2.0 is a solution looking for a problem.

There are plenty examples of companies using Web 2.0 inside their companies without any of the ‘social’ aspects – for example, a legal firm in Australia created a mashup called PeopleFinder that helps to reduce the number of calls to voicemail and shipping company Wallem saves money on fuel costs using Enterprise RSS as part of a system for communicating with their ships. While this probably isn’t what most people think of as Enterprise 2.0, it does demonstrate that Web 2.0 technology has real benefits once you work out how to apply it to business problems. Some companies are also simply using open source social computing tools as a cheaper alternative to proprietary content management software.

I don’t agree either that Enterprise 2.0 pre-supposes anything about organisational change. This assumes, incorrectly, that management hierarchies are the only reason for poor information flow in an organisation. It also assumes a strict choice between a free form or a structured information system. This doesn’t mean that existing management mindsets that have a basis in controlling information or information systems won’t be challenged, but we shouldn’t assume this is always the case either. This actually takes me to the point – and some people might be disappointed to hear me to say it – that the use cases for Enterprise 2.0 are no different from the use cases that intranets, document management systems, e-learning environments and collaboration tools have been trying to solve satisfactorily for years.

However, the most important feature of Enterprise 2.0 that many people still don’t get is the concept of emergence. Emergence isn’t about creating social chaos inside organisations. Instead its about taking an abundance approach to IT using Web 2.0 technology that allow users to create their own solutions with few constraints or penalties for wastage. And this is why Howlett gets it all wrong. As faddish as it sounds, Enterprise 2.0 isn’t a solution – it actually describes an IT paradigm shift.

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5 thoughts on “The nonsense of Enterprise 2.0

  1. You won’t be surprised to hear that I disagree with some of what you are saying. One of the big problems I perceive is the insistence on adding 2.0 to technology that in isolation has plenty of utility but only once people have found use cases. If that’s what emergence is supposed to be about (i.e. the outgrowth of whatever 2.0 is supposed to define) then good luck. Note however I don’t say that all 2.0 style tech is necessarily looking for a use case home. It seems to me that what we have is a clutch of technologies that may solve some problems – especially around collaboration – but that few, if any organizations have been able to come up with a boilerplate where you could say: ‘aaah – I see that’ in the way that you might with say ERP. To your last point – I defy any organization to buy that notion with any degree of confidence precisely because it implies the kind of organizational shifts that E2.0 hand wavers at least recognize as necessary for adoption but can’t as yet find a way of expressing how it’s going to work out.As always though, I’m prepared to be persuaded – just as I had to re: Twitter and wiki.

  2. Dennis – thanks for taking the time to comment (who says blogging is dead, eh?).I thought it might be easier to address you point by point, although slightly out of order:1. “we have is a clutch of technologies that may solve some problems – especially around collaboration – but that few, if any organizations have been able to come up with a boilerplate where you could say: ‘aaah – I see that’ in the way that you might with say ERP”This is partly true, but I also think that just reflects a little bit of laziness on the part of those organisations looking for those boilerplate technology solutions. Enterprise 2.0 isn’t a solution, like ERP. But if we look at the disadvantages of ERP. I can see lots of opportunities to improve it with Enterprise 2.0, how about you?BTW Enterprise RSS (part of the Enterprise 2.0 ecology) suffers from the very same problem – I tried to provide some guidance on understanding how it can add value with this article, The Enterprise RSS Value Chain, but people still need to sit down and think about it.2. “One of the big problems I perceive is the insistence on adding 2.0 to technology that in isolation has plenty of utility but only once people have found use cases. If that’s what emergence is supposed to be about (i.e. the outgrowth of whatever 2.0 is supposed to define) then good luck.”We are not waiting for the purpose of Enterprise 2.0 to emerge. When we talk about emergence, we mean a user-driven iterative approach to how we design information architectures that support business processes. Either by actively participating in its design (e.g. contributing to a wiki), through simple activities (e.g. bookmarking) or by creating social connections (e.g. conversational collaboration) will enable those designs to emerge. The meta use case for this, if you like, is about dealing with the complexity of organisations life and trusting the mechanics of Enterprise 2.0 to allow the right design to evolve (with a little bit of help, because of the organisational and technology issues that go with it). This is different from the traditional approach of attempting to design everything up front or forcing people to follow the designed process after the fact. Its actually not that different from how people have been using spreadsheets for years to gap fix broken enterprise information systems.3. “I defy any organization to buy that notion with any degree of confidence precisely because it implies the kind of organizational shifts that E2.0 hand wavers at least recognize as necessary for adoption but can’t as yet find a way of expressing how it’s going to work out.”If you want to make straight cause and effect decisions about IT strategy, then Enterprise 2.0 makes no sense at all. In his book, Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky talks about the Coase theorem and I think this goes someway in explaining why organisations are finding it hard to work out why they would do this (the value of Enterprise 2.0 is beneath what Shirky calls the Coasian floor). There is a TED video and an EconTalk podcast interview with Shirky that gets into all of that theory far better than I can here.Personally I think some organisations are going to get this quicker than other and will gain some competitive advantage because of it. For those that don’t, perhaps its just too bad?

  3. Thanks for this sensible, well-reasoned post. I think a lot of people have misunderstood the term “emergence” as McAfee uses it to describe Enterprise 2.0 — it’s easy to think it means “new” or is related to how long the technology has been around, but that’s incorrect.You address the issue well, James, in your comment responding to Dennis. I cited McAfee more explicitly in my post on the topic: http://www.adventuresinsocialmedia.org/2009/11/emergence-and-enterprise-20.html

  4. That is a great suggestion. I will do my best to highlight some of the the key challenges that one will face early on in this journey.Thanks and Regards/-Jason Webb

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