Web 2.0 proves Oscar Wilde Wrong

My posts on Enterprise 2.0 have stressed that its component technologies let structure emerge over time, rather than imposing it front as Enterprise IT does.  Enterprise 2.0, however, does not mean that business leaders surrender all of their previous levers of control.  It also doesn’t mean that IT is now bad if it imposes structure up front.

There remain plenty of good reasons to impose structure via IT —  to demonstrate compliance with laws and regulations, to ensure that best practices are followed with 100% fidelity, to increase ‘analyzability,’ to hand off grunt work from people to computers, etc. —  and these reasons do not go away or become less important simply because of the appearance of a new set of technologies.

What does get called into question by Enterprise 2.0 is the assumption that collaboration IT  needs to be thoroughly ‘set up’ in advance.  When I look at a lot of corporate collaboration technologies after spending time at Wikipedia, del.icio.us, Flickr, and Blogger I am struck by how regimented, inflexible, and limited the corporate stuff seems, because it does some or all of the following:

  • Gives users identities before they start using the technology.  These identities assign them certain roles, privileges, and access rights, and exclude them from others.  These identities almost always also place them within the existing organizational structure and formal corporate hierarchy.
  • Contains few truly blank pages.  Instead, it has lots of templates — for meetings, for project tracking, for documents and reports, etc.
  • Has tons of explicit or implicit workflow —  sequences of tasks that must be executed in order.
How much of this structure is necessary?  How much is valuable?  Well, the clear success stories of Web 2.0 demonstrate that for at least some types of community and collaboration, none of it is.

Large groups of strangers are coming together on the Web, interacting productively, and generating some very valuable outputs without encountering a lot of obvious workflow, gatekeeping, credentialing, or oversight when they try to join in and start contributing.

So here’s the obvious question: why should employees of the same organization require or benefit from more of these constraints than a large bunch of strangers scattered across the Web? 

It seems to me that collaboration within companies should be more freeform than Internet-wide collaboration.  After all, employees share a common culture, and can be easily identified and brought back into line if they violate norms behind the firewall.  These facts imply to me that employees can usually be trusted to work well together better than an Internet full of strangers, some of whom are clearly not people of good will.

Yet corporate collaboration platforms remain pretty highly regimented, while Web 2.0 collaboration is not.  I don’t think that this strange situation will persist, at least not everywhere, for one very simple reason:  freeform IT-based collaborations are yielding  great results.



 In 1891 Oscar Wilde summarized the cynic’s conventional wisdom by observing that "The brotherhood of man is not a mere poet’s dream: it is a most depressing and humiliating reality."  The outputs of Web 2.0 technologies are causing this cynic to question whether the online reality is no longer depressing or humiliating, but instead quite encouraging. 

These ‘pinko technologies,’ to steal the great phrase used by DrKW’s CIO (and blogger) JP Rangaswami when he visited my class, are accomplishing things that should impress the most hardheaded, results-obsessed business leaders — as long as they’re not blindly elitist, credentialist, or obsessed with hierarchy and the ‘proper’ channels.

The former Dean of my school, , told us early and often to trust our students when leading case discussions.  And the HBS teachers I admire most, particularly David Garvin and David Upton, excel at the subtle art of setting up a classroom environment in which the students are learning not (just) from them, but from each other, and collectively building up knowledge over a semester.  I honestly can’t think of a single good reason not to try hard to use IT to emulate and extend that kind of environment within companies.