The Trends Underlying Enterprise 2.0

 I have an article in the spring 2006 issue of Sloan Management Review (SMR) on what I call Enterprise 2.0 —  the emerging use of Web 2.0 technologies like blogs and wikis (both perfect examples of network IT) within the Intranet.  The article describes why I think this is an important and welcome development, the contents of the Enterprise 2.0 ‘toolkit,’ and the experiences to date of an early adopter.  It also offers some guidelines to business leaders interested in building an Enterprise 2.0 infrastructure within their companies.

One question not addressed in the article is: Why is Enterprise 2.0 is an appealing reality now?  It’s not because of any recent technology breakthrough.  Blogs, wikis, and RSS have been brewing since the 1990s, and folksonomies and AJAX since the early years of this decade.  Is it just that technologists and entrepreneurs needed a bit of time to absorb all of elements and combine them into useful tools?  That’s certainly part of the story, but focusing only on technology components risks missing the forest for the trees. 

In particular, it misses three broad and converging trends, all of them concerning the changing relationship between those who offer technologies and those who use them.  The trends are:

Simple, Free Platforms for Self-Expression  The great journalist AJ Liebling observed that "freedom of the press is limited to those who own one."  In the mid 1990s, the World Wide Web put a multimedia printing press and a global distribution network in the hands of everyone with a bit of bandwidth, a bit of money (for site hosting fees), and moderate technical expertise (for coding HTML pages and uploading them to servers).  Millions of people and companies took advantage of this opportunity.  Hundreds of millions of people did not, however, even though they had Internet access. 

Lots of these people, of course, had nothing to say or no desire to take advantage of the printing press offered by the Web.  Many others, however, were daunted by the combination of time, expense, and technical skill required to set up and maintain their own web site.  I grabbed the domain name mcafee.org many years ago (before the good people at McAfee, Inc (no relation, sadly) got to it), but I never did anything with it.  My few attempts at coding HTML and maintaining a decent page, let alone a decent site, taught me that it was a lot of work, and I had plenty of other things to do.

The $10-20/month in hosting fees weren’t a big deal for me, but they were for people with a desire to express themselves but no disposable income, or no credit card.  The Web, however, was not irrelevant for these people.  It was in fact incredibly useful, because of free email accounts they used whenever they could get in front of a computer.  When my brother and I went trekking in Madagascar a few years ago we met some great guides.  When we asked how we could get in touch with to plan our next trip the answer was usually something like "You can call this number.  It’s my sister’s husband’s brother’s mobile; he’s the only one with a phone.  Or here’s my Yahoo! email address."  We chose option B.

This example shows an important distinction.  For about a decade companies have been providing users around the world with free Web-based communication channels like email and instant messaging.  These channels have been valuable for people from Cambridge to Antananarivo.  But the information exchanged via these channels isn’t persistently visible, so it’s not consultable —  it doesn’t form part of the huge ongoing reference work that is the Web. 

Usenet groups are multi-party conversations that take place on archived, widely visible, and searchable platforms.  In February of 2001 Google bought a Usenet archive (dating back to 1975!) and made it as searchable as the rest of the Web.

At about the same time, another kind of Web-based platform was gaining steam:  blogs.  Blogs are essentially hassle-free Web sites; they free up content generators from having to worry about HTML tags, cascading style sheets, ftp, and all the other nagging details that kept me from ever putting up a site at mcafee.org.  So now I’m using the HBS blogging environment (provided by pMachine‘s ExpressionEngine) to put content on the Web; I worry only about the content, not about the work of putting it on the Web so it looks professional. 

In 2003 Google put freelance Malagasy tour guides on even footing with me by buying blogger and making it free to blog.  As a result, Liebling’s limits now apply only to those with no bandwidth or limited rights of self-expression.  The birth of free blogs is a big deal.  With five minutes of effort at a site like blogger or typepad anyone can build themselves a worldwide platform for self-expression.  They can contribute text, audio, photos, and videos to the Web.  Whether you believe that this is a good thing or a bad thing reveals something about your view of human nature.

Emergent Structures, Rather than Imposed Ones.  As technologists were building the new platforms they were also rethinking their roles, and making a fundamental philosophical shift.  Instead of imposing their own ideas about how the platforms should be structured, they started working hard to avoid such imposition, and to build tools that let structure emerge.  The history of Wikipedia provides a great example of this shift. 

Wikipedia is justly famous as an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit or extend (a future post will talk about Wikipedia in more detail, and explain why I feel about it the way the critic Randall Jarrell felt about Whitman’s poetry:  "There are faults in this passage, and they do not matter." ), but it didn’t start that way.  The goal was always to create a free online encyclopedia, but the first attempt by founders Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger was called Nupedia.  As its Wikipedia entry states…

"… Nupedia was characterized by an extensive peer review process designed to make its articles of a quality comparable to that of professional encyclopedias. Nupedia wanted scholars to volunteer content for free. Before it ceased operating [in September of 2003], Nupedia produced 24 articles that completed its review process (three articles also existed in two versions of different lengths), and 74 more articles were in progress."

Nupedia’s 7-step peer review process was heavily biased toward Ph.D holders and other alleged "true experts in their fields," and was evidently elaborate and daunting.  In a talk, I heard Wales say that even he was intimidated at the thought of submitting an article to it.

In late 2000 Wales was introduced to wikis, which are (again, according to Wikipedia) "a type of website that allows anyone visiting the site to add, remove, or otherwise edit all content, quickly and easily, often without the need for registration."  Wikis were invented by Ward Cunningham, who’s most frequently-repeated quote is "What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?" 

A wiki was introduced within Nupedia on January 10, 2001 as "a little feature."  By January 20, the newborn Wikipedia had about 600 articles.  It now has over 1 million in English alone, and over 3 million across all languages.  The simplest thing, evidently, is working.

Why is this?  There are a number of reasons, both technical and social, which are explained in the SMR article and will be considered in later posts.  One of the main ones is that the shift from Nupedia to Wikipedia was a huge reduction in the amount of structure in the content creation and editing process.  The structure was intended to act as a barrier to bad content, but instead it acted as a barrier to all types of content, and to broad participation.  When this structure was abandoned — when Wikipedia’s philosophy became explicitly ‘non-credentialist‘ and one of "making it easier to correct mistakes, rather than making it difficult to make them" —  the project took off and became something legitimately astonishing.

Yahoo!’s purchase, in late 2005, of del.icio.us provides another example of the same broad shift in philosophy.  Early in its history Yahoo!’s founders said that it stood for ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle," poking fun at themselves but also revealing their vision of the business.  Yahoo! attempted to organize the Web’s content hierarchically, placing individual sites into pre-defined categories like Health, Arts, and Computers, and into sub-categories within them. 

The company employed taxonomists to create and update this structure.  Taxonomy is the science of classifying things, usually hierarchically.  Carl  Linnaeus’s classification of living things — by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species — is perhaps the best-known example.  Taxonomies are developed by experts, and then rolled out to users to help us make sense of the world and relate things to each other.

I used to use Yahoo!’s taxonomy of the Web a lot.  I stopped when I sensed that the Web was becoming too big and growing too fast for the taxonomists to keep up with, and when I saw that it was more productive for me to enter free text into Google than to navigate through Yahoo’s hierarchy (which still exists, but appears pretty far down on Yahoo!’s home page.  It doesn’t appear to be a major part of their business any more).

I didn’t pay much more attention to Web categorization schemes until I started hearing about del.icio.us, which is based not on an up-front taxonomy developed by experts, but instead on a ‘folksonomy‘ —  a categorization system developed over time by folk.  My SMR article explains how the del.icio.us folksonomy arises and why it’s useful.  For now the important point is that del.icio.us’s founder didn’t want to impose his view of the Web’s structure on users; he wanted to let them develop a structure on their own.  The same philosophy is used at popular sites like Flickr (for sharing photos) and YouTube (videos). 

In late 2005 Yahoo! bought del.icio.us; this move can be seen as an acknowledgment that categorization of online content is still valuable, but that users themselves might be the best categorizers.

Order from Chaos If everyone from Malagasy tour guides to HBS professors starts blogging, making edits at Wikipedia, and uploading photos to Flickr, isn’t chaos the inevitable result?  Won’t we simply drown in information as hundreds of millions of people take advantage of the freedoms of the new online printing presses? 

Amazingly enough, the answer to these questions seems to be a simple ‘no.’  This is because in addition to building platforms for self-expression and overcoming their previous tendencies to impose structure, the technologists of Web 2.0 are providing a third valuable service —  they’re rolling out tools that help us filter, sort, prioritize, and generally stay on top of the flood of new online content.

As described in the SMR article, these tools include powerful search, tags (the basis for the folksonomies at del.icio.us and flickr), and automatic RSS signals whenever new content appears.  As I type these words I don’t know the best site to serve as the link behind the abbreviation ‘RSS’ in the previous sentence.  To find this site, I’m going to type ‘RSS’ into Google and see what pops up (sure enough, the Wikipedia entry for ‘RSS’ was pretty high in Google’s results).  I also don’t know the URL of the page I’m using right now to type this blog entry.  I do know that it’s on my del.icio.us page, tagged as ‘APMblog,’ so I can find it whenever I want.  And I don’t know what work my three collaborators on a research project are doing right now; I just know that when any of them has some results to share or a new draft of the paper they’ll post it on the project’s wiki (which is powered by Socialtext) and I’ll immediately get an RSS notification about it.

These examples are not meant to show that my professional life is perfectly organized (that assertion would be worse than false; it would be fraudulent) or that we’ve addressed all the challenges associated with the growth of the Web.  They’re meant instead to illustrate how technologists have done a brilliant job at three tasks: building platforms to let lots of users express themselves, letting the structure of these platforms emerge over time instead of imposing it up front, and helping users deal with the resulting flood of content.

As the SMR article discusses, the important question for business leaders is how to import these three trends from the Internet to the Intranet —  how to harness Web 2.0 to create Enterprise 2.0.  Future posts will have more to say on this topic. 

I’ll end this post with an anecdote that showed me that these three trends are not yet well understood by many business leaders.  Last week I was teaching in an executive education program for senior executives – owners and presidents of companies.  I assigned a case I wrote about the internal use of blogs at a bank, and also gave one additional bit of homework:  I pointed the participants to blogger and typepad, and told them to start their own blogs and report the blog’s URL to me.

What they reported instead was that they had no intention of completing the assignment.  They told me how busy they were, and how they had no time and no inclination to mess around with blogs (whatever they were).  Out of two classes of 50-60 participants each, I got fewer than 15 total blog URLs.

Trying to turn lemons into lemonade in class, I asked some of the people who actually had sent a URL to describe the experience of starting a blog.  They all shrugged and said it was no big deal, took about five minutes total, didn’t require any skills, etc.  I then asked why I would give busy executives such a silly, trivial assignment.  In both classes one smart student piped up to say "To show us exactly how trivial it was."  At that point, class discussion became interesting.