Does The Enterprise 2.0 Emperor Have No Clothes?

It’s noon, the keynotes have been going on all morning, and I have only just been inspired to blog. I’m not saying that standalone Enterprise 2.0 initiatives have jumped the shark, but there’s only so much rah-rah about enterprise collaboration that I can take before I fall back on three thoughts:

  1. Collaboration is already going on in enterprises, and always has: all that Enterprise 2.0 does is give us some nicer tools for doing what we’ve already been doing via word of mouth, email, and other methods.
  2. Collaboration is just not that interesting if it doesn’t directly impact the core business processes.
  3. The millennials are not going to save us.

People collaborate inside enterprises when they care about what they do. In other words, if you make someone’s job interesting and something that they have passion about, they will naturally collaborate using whatever tools are at hand in order to do it better. Andy McAfee’s keynote included a point about Enterprise 2.0 cargo cults, where organizations believe that deploying some tools will make the magic happen, without understanding all of the underlying things that need to be in place in order to make benefits happen: I strongly believe that you first have to make people care about their work before they will engage in creative collaboration, regardless of the shiny tools that you give them.

That brings me to the second point, that this has to be about the core business, or it’s just not very interesting at the end of the day. It’s not about providing a platform for some fun Facebook-for-the-enterprise; it’s about providing tools that people need in order to do their job better. In the 90’s, I was often involved in projects where people were using Windows for the first time in order to use the systems that we were creating for them. Some companies thought that the best way to train people on Windows was to have them play Solitaire (seriously); I always found it much more effective to train them on Windows using tools that were applicable to their job so that they could make that connection. We risk the same thing today by teaching people about enterprise social software by performing tasks that are, ultimately, meaningless: not only is there no benefit to the enterprise, but people know that what they’re doing is useless beyond a small amount of UI learning. I’m not saying that all non-core enterprise social functionality is useless: building an enterprise social network is important, but it’s ultimately important for purposes that benefit the enterprise, such as connecting people who might collaborate together on projects.

The millennial argument is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit, and I’m tired of hearing it spouted from the stage at conferences. You don’t have to be under 28 to know how to live and breathe social media, or to expect that you should be able to use better-quality consumer tools rather than what a company issues to you, or to find it natural to collaborate online. Many of us who are well north of that age manage it just fine, and I don’t believe that I’m an outlier based on age: I see a large number of under-28’ers who don’t do any of these things, and lots of old fogies like me who do them all the time. It’s more about your attitudes towards contribution and autonomy: I like to give back to the community, I’m an independent thinker, and I work for myself. All of these drive me to contribute widely in social media: here on my business blog (occasionally cross-posted to Intelligent Enterprise and Enterprise Irregulars), my personal blog, on Twitter, on Flickr, on Facebook, on YouTube, on FourSquare… wherever I can either connect with people who I want to be connected with, or where it amuses me to broadcast my thoughts and creations. For those of you who don’t do any of this, wake up! Social networking is your personal brand. You just need to accept that as truth, and take advantage of it. The ones who don’t, and use their age as an excuse for it, just don’t get it, and you shouldn’t be listening to anything that they say about social media.

To wrap it up: enterprise collaboration is good when it has a business purpose, and anyone can do it.

16 thoughts on “Does The Enterprise 2.0 Emperor Have No Clothes?

  1. Ah, I dunno. I feel your pain: it’s only Tuesday, and I’m already thinking “if I see one more thoughtless noob tweet of the blindingly obvious, I’m going to run around the room screaming for several minutes.”

    But you said: “Collaboration is already going on in enterprises, and always has: all that Enterprise 2.0 does is give us some nicer tools for doing what we’ve already been doing via word of mouth, email, and other methods.”

    And while that’s certainly true (indeed, blindingly obviously so), it misses the point. Scale effects matter. Rate of change matters. The impact of a new communications tech is not that it lets us do the same thing in some novel way — it’s that it lets us do more (for some value of “more”) of it. This is the difference that all these shiny tools enable.

    I’ll offer some examples:

    — we’ve seen that our participation numbers as broken down by region (42% USA, 23% EMEA, whatever, those numbers are made up for illustration purposes, too lazy to alt tab and look ’em up) aren’t matching up against a breakdown of head count by the same regions. In a nutshell, North America is somewhat underrepresented in the participation numbers, and the rest of the world somewhat overrepresented. What’s going on? Well, it’s a big, honking American company, and the dominant culture has always been American. But suddenly, the barrier to participation for the rest of the world dropped below some (very hard to quantify) threshold, and whammo! New culture now cooking — not quite done yet. Pent up demand, and a chance to have more of a voice, and the result is very different from what has gone before. No other tool — not email, not the telephone, not IM, not video-conferencing — could have had the same effect because they don’t operate at the same scale.

    — I agree about the business purpose stuff, as you know. I’m an “in the flow” fan, and talked about that at last year’s #e2conf. But we went ahead and did a silo anyway, cause that turned out to be the path of least resistance, and you know what? Its effects are striking, and positive. I’m continually startled by how useful, and powerful our platform is. It’s exerting real pressure on the organisation to adapt its deeper structures to allow for ever more meaningful (business relevant) collaboration. For example, there has been consistent criticism of some of our accounting rules for years — the way we do P&L, revenue recognition, etc. — because they work as active dis-incentives on collaboration. But suddenly, with the collective voice of nearly half the organisation shouting that message, those issues are rising to the top of management’s queue, and getting some serious attention.

    On a real level, these effects are subtle — boiling frog sorts of things, which are hard to pin down and point your finger at. But they’re very real, nonetheless, and most definitely not bullshit.

    I agree completely about the millennial nonsense, however. I think this plays well because it makes people feel hip, cool, with-it-man. Dunno. It’s annoying, but I also don’t see any harm in it?

  2. Mark, thanks for pouring a little cooling water over my somewhat hot head.

    On your second example, I don’t have a problem with silos (or rather, I consider them a necessary evil sometimes), but I do have a problem with social media for social media’s sake rather than for business purposes. You appear to be doing it with real business goals in mind, regardless of the technology silo, which makes it okay in my books. Not that you need my approval. 🙂

    I’m probably coming across as overly curmudgeonly, but I really do believe that Enterprise 2.0 can have enormous benefits in terms of reducing the time required to accomplish tasks, and improving the quality by involving more people.

  3. Sandy,

    largely i agree with your take, and it was a refreshing read:) in fact, the statistics / demographics for twitter, facebook, blogging, etc. all show that people *older* than “millenials” factually use these things in greater numbers and with greater penetration and with greater time commitment. I detest the lazy use of terms like gen x, gen y, millenial as a way to stereotype vast swaths of people, like a horoscope. And it can be used to say positive things or negative things about that age group, but I don’t like it either way, because I recall all the negative things said about my generation that simply weren’t true, and if I feel that way why would I turn around and do the same thing to people younger than I?

    Mark, I disagree with you – it isn’t harmless. Stereotyping badly is harmful. Be it based on age, gender, race, or nationality. Maybe less harmful than some other gross generalizations, but it is still harmful.

  4. Sandy,

    Great post. I think it’s inspiring me to write one of my own. I’ll crosspost the rest of my comment on my own blog:

    One of the things that bugs me about the current state of E2.0 is that even its advocates don’t seem to take it seriously.

    I keep hearing that benefits will take a long time to accrue and are difficult to measure, but that it’s worth adopting E2.0 because the cost of experimentation is so low.

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is bullshit.

    Let’s say your IT department came up with a major initiative, and when you asked about ROI, they replied, “The benefits are hard to measure, and you probably shouldn’t expect anything good for at least 6-12 months.” How long would it take you to give it the thumbs down.

    So why should we treat E2.0 differently than any other part of business?

    Furthermore, if you’re going to claim that the costs of E2.0 are low, the implication is that it doesn’t touch any core business processes. Because let me tell you, if you’re monkeying around with core business processes, it’s impossible for the costs to be low. Mistakes will happen, and they will be costly.

    A few years back, Salesforce.com went down for most of the day on the last day of a quarter. Every one of their customers got on the phone and bitched them out. And this was a great sign for Salesforce.com because it meant that its application was truly mission critical.

    If an application is to be truly important, the potential cost of failure has to be high.

    Right now, Enterprise 2.0 is being treated like a toy, even by its advocates. We treat it like the school system treats a struggling student, damning it with faint praise and boosting its self esteem, even as it keeps failing to turn in its homework.

    It’s time for E2.0 to grow up. E2.0 has to be concrete and measurable, and it has to be expensive, and that means we need to get the people in the organization with real IT spending juice (the VP Sales, CFO, or VP Eng) to buy into the fact that E2.0 is core to what they’re bonused on.

    Full, slightly revised post:
    http://chrisyeh.blogspot.com/2010/06/is-enterprise-20-just-toy.html

  5. Wiertz, definitely a related issue in your link: if you don’t have good communications in the first place, then adding some new social tools isn’t going to help much in terms of innovation.

  6. TOTALLY agree about the BS millennial argument. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve argued with Gen Y’ers about this. They all say “Our generation expects to be engaged in conversations with vendors” to which I say and 40 year olds don’t? I don’t blame them though, I’m sure when I was in my teens and 20s I thought I was different than the generation before me. It takes time to realize your traits and skills are defined by your experiences and the experiences of those around you, not by your age. I know groups of 40 and 50 year olds who are extremely active in social media and I know teens and 20 year olds that stay as far away from Twitter and Facebook as possible. True, when you grow up on a technology you are more comfortable with it (like kids using computers) but to believe that your “needs” are different, that is what annoys me.

  7. Totally agree with Sandy’s post. In fact, isn’t it a tautology?

    * Interaction without explicit business purpose (e.g., via emails) = communication

    * Interaction with explicit business purpose (e.g., via a Plan in a Human Interaction Management System) = collaboration

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