Sunday, May 6, 2007

Are Enterprise 2.0 Tools the "Wildflowers" of the 21st Century Workplace?

Tom Davenport, who the Harvard Business Review informs us holds the President’s Chair in Information Technology and Management at Babson College, contended recently that "Enterprise 2.0 Won't Transform Organizations."

Davenport is nothing if not straightforward:

"The primary proponent of this movement is HBS professor Andy McAfee, for whom I have a lot of respect. His are some of the most interesting thoughts on IT to come out of HBS in a long time, and he's a nice guy to boot. What he's trying to do is to bring Web 2.0 technologies into the enterprise, to understand and describe how blogs, wikis, tagging, and other participative tools will change large bureaucracies. He believes they will empower employees, decentralize decisions, free up knowledge, and generally make for better places to work. I share his goal of more democratic organizations and hope he is correct.

However, I fear he is not."

The reasons Davenport gives for his skepticism include "organizational hierarchy and politics," together with all the usual suspects whenever change is involved: "power differentials, lack of trust, missing incentives, unsupportive cultures, and the general busyness of employees today."

That last factor is uncannily reminiscent of the Oregon logger found sawing down a Pacific Silver Fir with a bread-knife. When interrupted by a neighbour who'd observed him hacking away for the past three days and who sought to lend him a chainsaw, the logger replied "I'd love to stop and chat but really I haven't the time – I've got this huge tree to fell."

Dion Hinchcliffe, as we have come to expect, has a radically different take. Davenport is missing the predominant reality of E2.0, Hinchcliffe retorts, which is that "the challenges of Enterprise 2.0 adoption will likely take care of themselves." By this he means that, as a generation of professionals enters the workplace who have been brought up on Wikipedia, MySpace, and Facebook, "it is inevitable that Web-based tools will simply appear, like wildflowers, in the fertile fields of our businesses and institutions."

If anyone be in any doubt, by the way, they needn't be. Enterprise 2.0 a process that has already begun.

This is precisely why, in April, a global IT leader like Accenture launched its new global employee network, an Intranet application that borrows ideas from Facebook,, YouTube, Wikipedia and Second Life.

“The younger employees carry it,” explained Accenture's CTO Donald Rippert in a presentation at his company's recent Global Convergence Forum in Rome – meaning that they were the first to publish on wikis, to tag content so it can more easily be found by their Accenture colleagues worldwide and so on.

So when Tom Davenport rounds off his "Why Enterprise 2.0 Won't Transform Organizations" post with the remark that

"It's going to be very interesting to see what happens when the young bucks and buckettes of today's wired world hit the adult work force. Will they freely submit to such structured information environments as those provided by SAP and Oracle, content and knowledge management systems, and communication by email? Or will they overthrow the computational and communicational status quo with MySpace, MyBlog, and MyWiki?"

he is, well, basically...too late.

Hinchcliffe documents the process as follows:

"I now routinely collect stories of firms large and small encountering these tools sprouting up within their organization, both via internally installation of these platform to employees just putting their favorite externally hosted Enterprise 2.0 tool subscription on their corporate credit card. In other words, because they appear to so easily cross organizational boundaries, can be adopted so easily, require virtually no training, are highly social, and so on, Enterprise 2.0 apps appear to have their very own 'change agent' by their fundamental nature."

Now I am certain that neither Hinchcliffe nor I would claim that enterprise wikis and/or other collaboration platforms can turn around businesses by themselves. As the Burton Group's Mike Gotta has written:

"Change is a complex choreography and as new ways of doing things takes shape, new tools are one facet of that emergence. So tools can indeed help enable all types of transformation (expected and unexpected), but there is no silver bullet, you need to do more than deploy technology."

But when the likes of Accenture, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo – all three blazing a trail in the enterprise-wide adoption of these kinds of tools – endorse something, you have to believe that the rest of the business world cannot be too far behind.

Don't forget to catch the first episode of The Enterprise 2.0 TV Show, by the way, in which 4 industry pioneers talk about their work in the trenches of Enterprise 2.0: Socialtext, Near-Time, Kapow Technologies, and Jubii. Disclaimer: Jeremy Geelan is the Web 2.0 Anchor of The Enterprise 2.0 TV Show, and Dion Hinchcliffe co-presents.

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