Irregular Opinions

I got to moderate a panel on Enterprise 2.0 at Longworth Venture Partners annual conference this past week.  A pleasant surprise for me was that all four panelists —  Jeff Nolan, Ismael Ghalini, Zoli Erdos, and Rod Boothby — were members of the ‘Enterprise Irregulars.’  This is a group of bloggers assembled by Nolan to ponder the future of enterprise software.  As we were getting our microphones put on I asked Jeff if I could join, and he told me I was in.

Also pleasant, but perhaps less of a surprise, was the level of optimism expressed by all panelists about the future spread of Enterprise 2.0 technologies like blogs, wikis, mashups, and a host of yet-to-be-developed-and-named tools to let knowledge workers work the elements of their enterprise systems —  data and business processes — in unstructured ways.  

I brought up the 9X problem of email:  the idea that any new collaboration technology will have to be nine times better than email in order to displace it.  The irregulars didn’t seem that bothered by it.  All of them told the audience stories from their personal experience about how eager users are for something better, and how quickly they make the switch to Enterprise 2.0 tools.  

I also asked how important line managers were in helping this switch take place.  Jeff and Ismael didn’t see much of a role for them.  Jeff talked about how quickly and easily wikis spread within SAP when he worked there, and Ismael told how he organized next week’s Office 2.0 conference using office 2.0 technologies and virtually no paper, and how the tools and processes he used were flexible enough to accommodate the vendor qualification and invoicing processes of all of the conference’s sponsors.  Zoli, on the other hand, talked about the steps he took when he ran a startup to encourage his team to use new collaboration technologies.  His remarks reminded me a lot of what I heard from DrKW’s Darren Lennard when I talked with him about getting busy investment bankers to stop using email and start using Enterprise 2.0 tools.  

Rod told somewhat different stories.  He’s been working for a while to get large mainstream organizations to change their modes of collaboration and knowledge management.  He wasn’t as optimistic as some others that "if we build it, they will come."  He’d seen plenty of management teams that were indifferent to or confused by the new technologies, and how hard it was get momentum when this was the case.  To be sure, he’s also seen success stories.  He told the audience, for example, about how effective wikis could be for letting groups develop Sarbanes-Oxley compliance policies.  But overall, his experiences seemed different than those of the other panelists.

We didn’t have enough time to pursue the issue, but I wanted to ask the Irregulars about the possibility that the tools we’re so interested in are destined to be niche technologies.  The niche will be inherently novelty-friendly and tech-friendly workplaces like the ones inside startups and technology vendors.  This is a big niche, and if Enterprise 2.0 technologies succeed only in such workplaces it doesn’t mean at all that they’re failures.  It does mean, though, that they’re not going to have an impact on most companies or most knowledge workers.

Another possibility is that Enterprise 2.0 takes off quickly in tech-friendly environments, then slowly penetrates other ones, perhaps as worker and managers migrate into them or perhaps as entry-level employes demand the kinds of tools they’re accustomed to using on the Web.  

In summary, this panel discussion helped bring into sharper focus the important question around Enterprise 2.0 technologies.  It’s not "Will these tools succeed anywhere?"  It’s "What determines where these technologies will succeed, and how quickly?"  What are the most important drivers —  industry, employee demographics, managerial willpower?  What else?  What do you think?