I Agree with Tom. And Yet…

Optimize Magazine just posted the discussion that editor Paula Klein had with me and JP Rangaswami, who as CIO of investment bank DrKW deployed the closest thing I’ve seen to a company-wide Enterprise 2.0 infrastructure.

What I didn’t know is that Optimize asked Tom Davenport to respond to the discussion.  And instead of agreeing with us wholeheartedly (JP and I were doing enough of that with each other), Tom provides counterpoints to our points.

Like everyone else who works at the intersection of IT and business and wants to do so intelligently, I’ve been reading Tom’s work for years.  He is both prolific and insightful, and has a wonderful ability to explain new developments in technology and communicate their importance without ever becoming a hype merchant.  He also has a great deal of experience and perspective, and so is ideally positioned to place allegedly novel technologies and trends in context, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see when old wine is being put in new bottles.  I referenced Tom’s work pretty heavily in my original Enterprise 2.0 article.

So it was with no small dread that I read early in Tom’s article:

"I believe these social media have their place, but they’re not revolutionary or even worthy of a new name. They won’t put any previous technology out of business or wipe out organizational hierarchy. They’ll live largely on the margins of organizations because they don’t fit their mainstream needs."  

In questioning the importance of Enterprise 2.0 technologies, he concentrates on blogs and wikis.

Tom says that despite blogs’ positive aspects, "
they have a tragic flaw: No one has the time to read them."  As a result, they should be used sparingly.  "If you’ve got some experts or highly authoritative individuals and you want to get their opinions more broadly distributed, blogs can be just the ticket. But make sure you don’t clutter up the internal blogosphere by empowering too many of them."

When I look at my own blog consumption, I see Tom’s point.  I faithfully read exactly one blog, and it’s got nothing to do with my job.  But I drop in for a quick visit on probably more than a score of different IT and business blogs each week, and a different set every week.  This opportunistic cherry-picking is guided by Google, Google blog search, Technorati, del.icio.us, and comments and trackbacks I get on my own blog.  The blogosphere is both navigable and extraordinarily useful to me; I treat it more like a newspaper I assemble myself as needed, rather than a set of so many books-in-progress that I could never keep up with them all.  

There may be downsides to empowerment, but cluttering of the internal corporate blogosphere isn’t one of them if decent search capability exists on the Intranet.  As I wrote in my article, linking and tagging help develop this capability, and Google and others are happy to sell a company a search appliance.  Tom says my HBS blog is not easy to find (and I really should update my official faculty information page to link to it) but I just typed "Andrew McAfee blog", "Andrew McAfee Harvard blog", "Andrew McAfee HBS blog", and  "Andrew McAfee Enterprise 2.0" into Google, and in every case my blog was returned as the first result.  With "Andrew McAfee" it was second.   I’m not sure how to make it much easier to find.

Tom seems wary of wikis’ egalitarian and non-credentialist natures.  As he writes:

"With Wikipedia, I always have a nagging doubt about who contributed the knowledge and what their agendas might be…  I once asked a group of MBA students to come up with a knowledge-management strategy for NASA. They argued that the centerpiece of the strategy should be a set of wikis about each knowledge domain. But if I’m an astronaut being fired into space, can I afford to trust the democratic process? I’ll want the best knowledge from the best experts to be used in guiding my launch."

Of course NASA wouldn’t design a manned rocket’s heat shield based solely on the NASAwiki’s content and then fire that rocket into space without first testing it.  But would a NASAwiki be a good place to discuss the design of the heat shield, the appropriate next set of tests, etc.?  Would it be a waste of experts’ time to have their views subject to scrutiny on the wiki, or would it be a good idea?

And, is NASA really the best example to bring up in support of traditional knowledge management approaches?  We’ve lost two space shuttles, so something about knowledge flows within NASA’s pretty clearly isn’t working well.  As Edward Tufte, the Rogers commission, and others have convincingly showed, the Challenger disaster was due in part to the fact that people who understood the tight and dangerous relationship between low launch temperatures and o-ring failures couldn’t get this knowledge the visibility it deserved.  It sounds like a more egalitarian, evidence- and logic-based process for sharing information and discussing risks might be exactly what NASA needs.  

A couple of minor points.  There’s a danger in confining our discussion of Enterprise 2.0 technologies to blogs and wikis.  I imagine Tom considered only these two because of space considerations, but I’ve noticed elsewhere a tendency to equate Enterprise 2.0 with corporate blog + wiki use.  This viewpoint is far too narrow.  The phenomena, and the supporting technologies, of initially freeform and eventually emergent collaboration are rich and varied; let’s try to make sure we’re not leaving any of the important ones out.

Also, I need to offer Tom one gentle correction.  He writes that "McAfee argues that these tools are bringing about a participatory revolution."  I’ve actually consciously avoided using the word ‘revolution’ in any of my writing on this topic; I just checked through my blog and original article, and I’m pretty sure that it never appears.  In addition to the fact that ‘revolution’ is one of the favorite words of technology vendors and hype merchants, which is reason enough not to use it, it’s also not the right word.  Revolutions are precipitate, traumatic, quick, and unignorable; I haven’t seen evidence that Enterprise 2.0 is any of these.

Tom finishes by observing that "We can wish that power and capability were more evenly distributed, but a set of technologies isn’t going to make it so."  Certainly not, but the combination of new technologies and dedicated individuals has already led to some interesting power shifts.  It’s probably fair to say that both Trent Lott and Dan Rather lost their jobs in large part because of bloggers.  The venerable Encyclopedia Britannica has seen its position of factual authority challenged by Wikipedia.

Within the enterprise, there’s a third critical constituency in addition to technology and individuals:  management.  But it’s far too simplistic to treat ‘management’ as a undifferentiated group that either wants to radically empower employees or suppress their views and keep them locked in the existing hierarchy.  Different managers, even those within the same company, can have very different views, and can embrace Enterprise 2.0 or try to ward it off.  

Consider the example of a change in corporate ownership.  One of the dominant trends in the worlds of venture capital and private equity at present is assuming a controlling interest in underperforming companies, whether public or private, then ‘fixing’ them via fairly forceful managerial intervention.  The assumption underlying these deals is that existing management is failing to maximize value, or perhaps even destroying it.  

In these situations, there are three safe bets.  First, that knowledge about the recently acquired company’s biggest problems and missed opportunities exists throughout the workforce —  someone knows where the bodies, and the gold, are buried.  Second, that some of the people who know these things want to tell the new bosses about them, whether to advance their careers, settle scores, keep afloat a company they care about, etc.  Third, that some others want very much to keep the new bosses in the dark, and to keep some kinds of knowledge from flowing freely.  

Given all this, one of the first things I’d do after I acquired such a company is widely deploy a suite of Enterprise 2.0 technologies, perhaps an option for pseudonymity.  I’d also communicate clearly that using the new tools would not put an employee’s job at risk; since I’m the new boss, this is a credible commitment.  In other words, I’d work pretty hard to use technology to shift power.

Tom is spot on to stress that organizations are still hierarchical places, and will continue to be.  For me, the interesting question posed by Enterprise 2.0 is how hierarchies will shape, and be shaped by, the new tools now available.  I’m not as sure as he is that power and capabilities are not going to be somewhat redistributed.  As Victor Hugo said, "One can resist the invasion of an army but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas."