Does Web 2.0 guarantee Enterprise 2.0?

Nick Carr had some thoughts about my Enterprise 2.0 article and post on the same topic.  As always, he got to the heart of the matter, and it’s worth quoting him at some length:

"…skepticism is in order. McAfee provides just one case study of a company gaining real benefits from Web 2.0 – that of the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein – and even that one seems provisional. There are, to be sure, other examples of apparently successful uses of Web 2.0 technologies for knowledge management, but all previously hyped knowledge management technologies also came wrapped in anecdotes of enthusiastic earlier adopters. In the excitement of the rollout of such technologies, it’s easy to document initial "successes" – there’s always at least a small group of technologically-inclined employees who will gravitate to a seemingly cool new platform. The real test comes later, when the personal costs and benefits of using the system become apparent to a broad set of employees…

Managers, professionals and other employees don’t have much spare time, and the ones who have the most valuable business knowledge have the least spare time of all. (They’re the ones already inundated with emails, instant messages, phone calls, and meeting requests.) Will they turn into avid bloggers and taggers and wiki-writers? It’s not impossible, but it’s a long way from a sure bet."’

Hear, hear.  The spread of Enterprise 2.0 technologies is definitely not a sure bet, and one of my deepest professional nightmares is being a hype merchant for each new IT gizmo that comes along.

My enthusiasm and cautious optimism about these tools stems from the fact that they’re already being used heavily and delivering huge amounts of value.  This usage right currently takes place almost exclusively on the public Internet; Enterprise 2.0 is my shorthand for these tools’ migration behind the firewall.  

If you believe that this migration won’t take place, you believe essentially that companies — interdependent groups of people with a common mission and a profit motive —  are less able or less likely to engage in free-form collaboration than the mass of previously independent volunteer freelancers that have made Wikipedia, Flickr, MySpace, YouTubedel.icio.us, Digg, etc. so powerful and successful.

My article and Carr’s post emphasized one reason why employees might be less likely than Web surfers to use blogs, wikis, tags, RSS, etc.:  they’ve got too many other things to do.  It’s very reasonable to believe that most busy professionals are only going to blog if it helps them get their job done.  But it’s also pretty reasonable to conclude that blogging will do exactly that.  

Lots of knowledge workers spend lots of their time on two activities:  keeping their colleagues appraised of what they’re doing, what progress has been made, what they’ve learned/concluded, etc. and trying to locate resources within their own organizations —  facts, references, work that’s already been done, people with relevant smarts or experience, etc.  Blogs (like the other Enterprise 2.0 tools) can help with the first of these tasks, and in doing so also help with the second.  It’s not too farfetched to envision companies in which people use Enterprise 2.0 tools to report progress, collaborate, and share the outputs of these collaborations.  These same people would probably also search the company’s internal ‘collabosphere’ —  the collection of blogs, wikis, group-level instant messages, tags, etc. —  early and often in any effort.     

In short, I completely agree that most workers these days feel busy, and hard-pressed to keep up with both demand and supply of information.  The tools of Enterprise 2.0 can help do both.

I can think of two other plausible reasons that Enterprise 2.0 will not become a widespread phenomenon.  First, most companies might not have a sufficiently long tail.  Chris Anderson brought the statistical concept of the long tail into the realm of  business, where he applied it to product demand.  Most books that Amazon sells have very low demand, but because there are so many such books (book demand, in other words, has a long tail) it makes great sense for Amazon to offer them all (especially if they don’t have to own the inventory themselves).  The cumulative sales of many, many low demand books (yellow in the picture below) will be greater than the total sales of the few blockbusters (red in the picture).

A long tail distribution
A Long-tailed Distribution

I think there’s also a long tail among people, and it relates not to willingness to consume (i.e. demand) but rather to willingness to produce.  In November of 2005, the most recent month for which comprehensive stats are available, Wikipedia had over 850,000  articles in English, and  2.9 million across all languages (including more than 10,000 in Esperanto).  This content was generated by fewer than 50,000 contributors in English, and 103,000 total.  

A ‘contributor’ is defined by Wikipedia as someone with a user ID who’s made at least ten total edits.  Anonymous and more casual participants are certainly important at Wikipedia, but it’s my understanding that the bulk of actual content comes from the population of contributors (please correct me if this is wrong).  And even this population is skewed:  active English wikipedians (more than 5 contributions in a month) numbered 15,600 last November, and very active (100 or more) numbered only 2081.

The Internet lets Amazon aggregate demand for books at the end of the long tail, and thereby profit.  The Net also lets Wikipedia aggregate supply from people at the end of the long tail of willingness to produce, and we all profit.  But these people are a tiny, tiny fraction of all Internet users.  

If companies only get the same fraction of Intranet users to use Enterprise 2.0 tools, these tools will be roundly and rightly acclaimed as failures.  Business leaders have to find ways to increase the ‘ambient percentage’ of internal wikipedians, bloggers, taggers, etc. well beyond what we’ve observed so far on the public Internet.  Demonstrating that these tools will increase productivity, decrease workload, and put hours back in the week will certainly help, but I wonder if such demonstrations will be enough.  

Perhaps the biggest leverage business leaders have in encouraging Enterprise 2.0 is that maddeningly vague word culture.  If they can convince their organizations that using and contributing to the internal collabosphere is part of the fabric, identity, and life of the company, some interesting things will happen.  

The third reason to be pessimistic about Enterprise 2.0, however, is also culture, especially as it’s defined and shaped over time by business leaders.  If these leaders signal that they really don’t want open, freeform, and emergent collaboration, they really won’t get it.  I predict that the diffusion of these tools is going to sharpen differences among companies as some work to foster the new styles, modes, and practices of collaboration and others work (subtly or overtly) to squelch them.

What do you think?  What are the other impediments to Enterprise, and how (if at all) can they be overcome?  Leave a comment and tell us what you think.