Enterprise 2.0: Ratchet Technologies?

My posts on Enterprise 2.0 have attracted several very thoughtful comments.  I want to excerpt and emphasize one from Sean Park, who works at DrKW and maintains the Park Paradigm blog.  He wrote (emphasis added by me):

[McAfee writes that] "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.” Exactly, on both counts.  The ‘too many things to do’ is an energy barrier that needs to be overcome.  Not always easy, but what makes me very optimistic is that when you do breach that inertia, these tools really are as easy to use as it ‘says on the box.’ For anyone.  Not just techno-geeks, not just Generation M. And the energy barrier declines over time as a tipping point is reached…indeed I think we are getting close at DrKW and in some business lines are already past it.  And the benefits to an information worker – once they’ve tried it – are so immediate and compelling that it becomes natural and part of the furniture very quickly:  I honestly can’t conceive of going back to working without the wiki. And for all intents and purposes, wide adoption only began 6-7 months ago!

My feelings exactly.  I’m actually not a big gadget user; most of them are too hard to learn, too hard to use, have too many features, and don’t give me the productivity boosts I crave.  And I usually can’t be bothered to take the time to learn all the time-saving features of hardware and software gadgets; these features aren’t obvious enough to me and so never get activated.
 
But the Socialtext wikis that I use (full disclosure:  Socialtext lets me use their software for free.  I have no financial stake in the company) and my del.icio.us bookmarks and tags have become as indispensable to me as email, Google, and my Blackberry.  They ace both of the classic criteria for user acceptance of IT:

 

  • Ease of Use:  To start editing a page on Socialtext, I double-click on the page.  This is so convenient that I’ve set up a one person wiki (which must be a taboo of some kind) with my to-do lists on it.  I can access it from anywhere, and add to it in seconds.  With the del.icio.us browser toolbar I can bookmark a new page with one click, and go to my collected bookmarks with another.  
  • Usefulness:  I’ve set up wikis for all of the collaborative projects I’m working on, and email alerts and/or RSS tell me when any of my colleagues have advanced the work.  Del.icio.us frees me up from having to remember URLs or keep my bookmarks consistent across the computers I use, and its tagging feature lets me organize sites and pages the way I want to.  The social features of del.icio.us are, for me, icing on the cake.  I use them to learn about new sites and voices devoted to topics I’m interested in.

Nick Carr points out accurately that new IT tools always have early adherents, usually geeks.  I’m definitely geekier than most of my colleagues and executive education students, but my MBA students are actually pretty close to me in their affinity for new tech tools. 

HBS MBA students are, of course, much different than the general population along many dimensions, but when I look at them as another class of busy knowledge  workers they actually seem pretty typical.   They try to keep a lot of balls in the air at once, have lots of professional and personal interests, and face a rolling set of deadlines.  Sound familiar?

We spent some time talking about and demonstrating Web 2.0 technologies in class this past semester.  They thought chicagocrime.org and dartmaps were cool, but I don’t think any of them signed up for the next mashup camp.  I do think, though, that some of them started using Blogger, Socialtext, Writely, Digg, del.icio.us, Wikipedia, and a lot of the other tools we went over.

I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they started evangelizing for tools like these at the companies they’re going to, or at least alerting their coworkers to them and trying to get some grassroots enterprise 2.0 going.  If so, they wouldn’t be evangelizing mainly because they want what’s best for their companies; they’d be doing so because they want good tools for themselves. 

The most fundamental grounds for optimism about the future of enterprise 2.0 technologies is that they provide enduring benefits to companies and groups while providing immediate benefits to individuals.  This sharply differentiates these technologies from applications like classic knowledge management systems where individuals were essentially ‘taking one for the team’ when they contributed.  They did so because of incentives or very strong norms, or because of an expectation that if everyone else behaved as they did the system might one day have some useful information for them.

People use enterprise 2.0 technologies, on the other hand, because they make work easier as soon as soon as new adopters get over Park’s ‘energy barrier.’  And everything I’ve seen makes me agree with him that the barrier is only going to get lower over time as the tools themselves get easier to use, as new people with very different tech skills and expectations enter the workforce, and as we fogies get used to the ideas of posting, tagging, editing Web-based content by double-clicking, etc.

I predict that for a lot of knowledge workers the elements of enterprise 2.0 are going to become what I call ‘ratchet‘ technologies —  tools where there’s no going back.  Can you imagine working (or even living) without the Internet, email, Google, and a mobile phone?  If not, these are ratchet technologies (if so, congratulations on achieving satori).  My car GPS, Tablet PC, wikis, and del.icio.us collection are among my ratchet technologies, and this blog is quickly becoming one.  I think a few more are coming.