Irregular Opinions

by Andrew McAfee on October 7, 2006

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?

  • http://bronto.com Eric Boggs

    A few comments on your thoughts about niche adoption vs. larger scale adoption of Enterprise 2.0 technologies…

    I work for a software start-up in the process of launching a wiki-driven product management process and a wiki-driven intranet.

    The product management side is a no-brainer – there are only a few participants using the wiki for a very specific purpose. Thus, heavy collaboration and much utility.

    The intranet side is dicier. I suspect that we – and other enterprises dipping their toes in the 2.0 waters – will have difficulty assigning roles and managing content in a free form “2.0″ environment. Who can edit what? Who is the final authority?

    Which begs the larger question – is an enterprise wiki with only a handful of “approved” contributors and a “final authority” truly a wiki? Or just a content mgmt system with cachet?

  • http://firestoker.com Jevon

    Our experience has led us to a somewhat obvious combination of adoption theory, the tipping point, and plain old managerial buy in and willpower. None easy to work all at the same time.

  • http://teblog.typepad.com/ David Tebbutt

    Hi there Andrew. Something we can talk about when (if) we meet at Office 2.0 this week. For the benefit of readers, I am one of the Irregulars.

    In general, I am optimistic about the technologies you mentioned. But I think the ‘enterprise’ itself is the issue. The average organisation doesn’t really want ad hoc computing initiatives and it will be even more averse to substantial cultural change, which the less enlightened will regard as ‘subversion’.

    Communities of Practice strike me as the obvious social software bridgehead into organisations. They have already undergone the cultural readjustment to adopt this stuff. If management see the benefits, they may be more receptive to wider adoption.

    I have started many wikis and, I think because of their inherent ‘geekiness’ and the low numbers of participants, they have not become anywhere near as active as I had hoped. Mostly they comprised me seeding useful information, getting the odd contribution back, then a taper into indifference.

    This could, of course, have been the result of discovering that the projects were unworthy of pursuit anyway. In which case, job done. (In actual fact, mail lists stimulated the participants far more, even though it became a nightmare to keep track and draw the threads together.)

    Using wikis requires effort and incorporation into work habits, therefore the promised rewards need to balance this effort. Using a wiki requires more discipline than, say, email, blogging, RSS and using an aggregator.

    Your “9x” sounds like a headline-grabbing soundbite (I am a journalist some of the time) but I think while the number may be unsubstantiable, the principle is correct.

    Finally, while Ismael has done a brilliant job of putting together the Office 2.0 conference, I would not hold up the wiki as a major component of its success. The Irregulars have tried (on and off) to collaborate in the wiki, but we always seem to revert to Google Groups and, if I’m anything to go by, receive and respond through email rather than Google itself.

    Having said this, I have attended two LesBlogs events in Paris in which Loic Le Meur made the SocialText wiki the hub of the pre-event activity, from getting speakers and attendees, through publicity, to making social arrangements with ‘birds of a feather’.

  • http://www.venturegeek.com Nathan Dintenfass

    Your statement about “novelty-friendly and tech-friendly workplaces” hits the nail on the head here. To answer the question “Can these new technologies be incredibly effective?” is very different than “Will a critical mass of companies adopt these technologies?”

    Those with the time to wade through the growing list of companies trying to address various business process/production issues will, no doubt, find some fantastic tools that can be put together into a meaningful advantage in terms of efficiency/efficacy of their teams. But, for mere mortals who generally feel the need to attend “training” to adopt a new technology, it seems a tough sell to pick out one of the dozens of choices for any particular problem (OK, so dozens is in many cases exaggerated, but it’s starting to get to that point) and run with it.

    The all-too-often notion of “antibodies” inside of a corporation plays out well here — you might see enlightened teams take up particular tools for particular purposes, but therein lies the challenge to build a “big” business around selling these tools — you’ll need to find a way to get sales leverage in order execute a bottom-up strategy, and that’s a tough nut to crack. Not impossible, to be sure, but the point is that having a tool or suite of tools that has a 9X improvement is only the beginning of making a real business in this space. There’s a reason, after all, that we saw an evolution away from “Best of Breed” and towards the mega-suites with “Good Enough” tools. On the other hand, I agree that one of the biggest real trends in “Enterprise 2.0″ is selling to the people who use software rather than to those who maintain it. I think, though, that transition will take many years longer than those making bets in this space today would like (of course, that mismatch of investment to market maturation time is all too common in venture).

    Perhaps there will be a new category of consultancies that emerge to help organizations make sense of the dizzying number of new choices in software/services — if the Enterprise 2.0 folks can come along and disrupt the traditional enterprise software vendors, perhaps this new breed of consultancy can disrupt the large SI shops too…

  • http://webdoscero.blogspot.com Richard Johnson

    I work at International Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 3ie, in Chile and we had an experience with a wiki. The idea was to share information online with a easy and practical tool.

    Nevertheless people didn’t use it. I thought they saw it so geek or boring, without categories and rules, so they didn’t know how start to participate. We made instructions who nobody read, metodologies who nobody applied. This trouble seems to be so human.

    Therefore, in my humble opinion, the question must to be “How transform a geek technnology tool in a friendly no-geek social tool?” or “Will the McAfee’s six components (SLATES) be enough to achieve it?”

  • http://www.koral.com Tim Barker

    Maybe I’m stating the obvious but the model of disruptive technologies is a very well understood area. Office 2.0 / Enterprise 2.0 will be no exception in how technology is adopted. No matter how much optimizm there is around a technology, you can’t escape the chasm:

    1. Technology is adopted over time in a bell-curve shape with technology enthusiasts the first to jump onto a new technology, and the laggards the last.

    2. Technology enhusiasts (the Irregulaors and the Techcrunch crowd) and early adopters will jump to a new technology to gain an edge. They’ll live with the bugs, workaround issues and don’t worry about referencability etc.

    Problem is, it’s a pretty small market. So, you really need to appeal to the pragmist early majority market who prefer to follow-the-herd and use proven technologies, buy from the recognized market leader and want a 100% solution: support, services, referencability, etc.

    Problem is, technology enthusiasts don’t make good references for these pragmatists. The way to appeal to them is to pick a line-of-business problem that is causing pragmatists so-much-pain that they are willing to break from the herd.

    Andy – I think your model for 9x more productive is correct here (during my time at a VC we pretty much disregarded anything as a disruptive-technology unless it has a 10-time improvement over the status-quo)

    So, in short, I think that wikis etc. CANNOT jump straight to mainstream. They must win their market-share in NICHE areas to prove their value and cross the chasm between early adopters and the mass market. From there, they can stretch out into other areas and maybe, over time, play across the entire enterprise.

    Good luck to you all!

  • http://www.ddmcd.com Dennis D. McDonald

    Having conducted my own research over the past year on the issue of Web 2.0 adoption in the enterprise I’m no longer surprised at the mixed response various Web 2.0 tools and techniques are getting. The situations of resistance that Rod Boothby describes are not unusual. I also think it is more likely that indifference will be encountered than outright resistance.

    No one should be surprised by this. Web 2.0 covers a variety of technological, process, and cultural changes. It’s a complex area requiring an understanding of different marketing and adoptions strategies targeted at different market segments and different “communities of practice.” Given this complexity it’s not surprising that the research methods being applied in studying Web 2.0 are more akin to clinical reporting and case studies than controlled experiments; there are just too many variables to control. Marketplace adoption is where truth will be told, and the jury is still out.

    A telling point will be how hard Microsoft pushes the various collaborative and social networking oriented products it is developing and testing in parallel with Sharepoint Server 2007. I was surprised to hear at the New New Internet Conference in Northern Virginia (where Professor McAfee spoke, among others) that internally Microsoft is referring to Knowledge Network and related products as “edge” products, a term developed by Microsoft’s marketing team in reference to the complex nature of the adoption process for these new products.

    Microsoft may believe that adoption of new collaborative and social networking oriented tools is going to take a very long time. Whatever you think of Microsoft’s technology and business strategy, internally they themselves have adopted collaborative tools quite aggressively. Whether or not Microsoft believes that such tools will have a big market and rapid adoption among corporate users, where “knowledge management” is less of a focus than getting “business as usual” done, is still an open question.

  • http://andy.the-broyles.com andy broyles

    Hello Andrew,

    I purchased your white paper this afternoon…very interesting reading.

    I work on the ‘other side of the fence’, I am in IT and I am having difficulty de-conflicting the needs of the enterprise vs. the needs of the user when it comes to the ideas presented by Enterprise 2.0.

    I love the concept of empowering users; but at the same time have to face the realities of regulatory impact on the enterprise. I have blogged these thoughts, commented on Guy Kawasaki’s blog article on CogHead, and commented on Rod Boothby’s blog as well. Basically all three thoughts are around the same issue…user freedom vs corporate control.

    I would really appreciate your comments on this frustration I am experiencing.

  • http://blog.juliankamil.com/ Julian I. Kamil

    I work at a large corporation where it’s been somewhat successful in using wikis, blogs, and other “home grown” collaborative tools internally. I think the sheer size of the company (over 300,000 worldwide), its global nature, and the nature of its business (technology innovation) help to make it be more susceptible to the applications of these tools. However, I have also noticed some (read: a lot of) inertia in the adoption the same Web 2.0 tools in various places inside and outside of the company, and the primary reason, I believe, is the social aspects–which is unprecedented in enterprise applications. I suspect that, and I wrote about it in my blog, Enterprise 2.0 will start to take shape in the mainstream through the adoption of the non-social aspects first (improved usability, richer UI, etc.) before people (read: managers) start to get used to or be forced to accept the more social aspects.

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