Enterprise 2.0: The State of the Meme

It’s been exciting to watch awareness and discussion of Enterprise 2.0 spread across the blogosphere over the past few months.  The term appears to have taken root and started to blossom.  More importantly, the concepts underlying the term are being debated, refined, and propagated.  It doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry yet, and Google Trends says today that "Your terms – "enterprise 2.0" – do not have enough search volume to show graphs," but something tells me that this is just a matter of time.

Voices and Venues

I’ve learned a lot from reading what Ross Mayfield, Dion Hinchcliffe, Nick Carr, Peter Rip, JP Rangaswami, Sean Park, Ray Lane, John Hagel, Steve Eisner, and many others have had to say about Enterprise 2.0 and related topics.  Comments and trackbacks left here have also been highly valuable, and have introduced me to a lot of people and writing I would not have known about otherwise.

It seems that more and more conferences these days are including sessions, panels, keynotes, etc. devoted to Enterprise 2.0 topics.  The Gartner Symposium/ITxpo and reboot8 recently finished up, and coming up there are Wikimania, the CTC, Interop, the Web 2.0 conference, and certainly many others.  These events should help spread ideas and enthusiasm more widely, and I bet their Enterprise 2.0 sessions will be well attended.  I just gave a talk on the topic at the HBS reunion (for the classes that graduated 5, 10, 15, 20, and 50(!) years ago).  I was pleasantly surprised both by  the number of people who came and by their levels of engagement.  A lot of them were already experimenting with blogs, wikis, and other social software inside their companies.).

Emerging Consensus

In addition to topics I’ve posted on here, there seems to be convergence around a few other linked themes:

Enterprise 2.0 technologies don’t respect existing horizontal and vertical boundaries within organizations.  These tools don’t care much who you are or where you fit in the org chart.  In their pure form they accept contributions regardless of source and display them regardless of audience.  Many have pointed out that this is likely to make lots of people uncomfortable.  As Max Weber wrote over 80 years ago, "Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret…Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament—at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy’s interests."  Knowledge and intentions both become more widely visible with Enterprise 2.0.

CEOs, CIOs, and users welcome this development.  I’ve given Enterprise 2.0 talks here at HBS to participants in our most senior executive education program, to owners and founders of their own small and medium-sized companies, to IT/IS managers, and to alumni.  Reactions from all these groups have been highly positive.  One of the owner/founders stopped my spiel, looked around the room, and said to his colleagues something close to "Hey everyone, if we trust our employees, and if we really do believe that they’re out most important asset, and if we think that we have a healthy corporate culture, then we have to do this stuff."  Lots of other postings I’ve read make the same point — that top managers and technologists want to deploy these tools.  

Some middle managers don’t. Weber’s quote probably applies most strongly to the population of middle managers who are used to acting as the main conduit for information into and especially out of their groups.  Prior to the network era, these folk could exercise pretty effective control over how the ‘rest of the world’ perceived their groups by filtering and selectively presenting information.

Enterprise IT like ERP reduced the ability of middle managers to control the flow of structured transactional information (how much inventory do we have?, how many orders did we ship last month?, how long did it take us to get paid?, etc.).  Enterprise 2.0 technologies threaten to do the same for unstructured knowledge-based information.  These technologies bring new architectures of participation.  As Mitch Kapor brilliantly said, "Architecture is politics."  And Ross Mayfield pointed out that Enterprise 2.0 overturns previously encoded political bargains.

Simpler is better.  A very thoughtful email I got from reader TR made a great point:  "Wikis/Blogs etc. are effective because they’re simple and people can get things done quickly. I know this is a simple point, and I know you’ve made it (when describing Wikis), but what if this point overwhelms all the others in significance?"  Indeed, what if?  I love writing about highfalutin concepts like emergence, but it’s important to not lose sight of the fact that people use these tools because they work for them, and they work in large part because they’re so easy to use.  We should all tape to our walls wiki inventor Ward Cunningham‘s driving question:  "What’s the simplest thing that could possibly work?"  Doing so might help us overcome our innate desire to use technology to impose structure, and also help companies deliver IT more cheaply.

A Fault Line

Debate continues about whether Enterprise 2.0 is about new infrastructure or about new modes of collaboration.  I’ve tried to be very clear that to me it’s the latter, and not the former.  Enterprise 2.0, in other words, is about new communities, not communities’ new plumbing.  If we keep talking about the plumbing we’re going to lose the attention of business leaders.  And that would be a shame.