What we talk about when we talk about Enterprise 2.0

The good people writing at Sandhill.com seem bound and determined to define Enterprise 2.0 as broadly as possible.  First there were posts by M.R. Rangaswami and Vinnie Mirchandani in September of this year.  Rangaswami wrote that:

"Enterprise 2.0 is the synergy of a new set of technologies, development models and delivery methods that are used to develop business software and deliver it to users."

I argued against this use of the phrase after I came across it, partly because I feel proprietary of the phrase I helped coin.  Naturally, I’d like to see my definition, which centers on the use of social software platforms within enterprises, become the dominant one.  So it’s hard to watch others stretch the original definition to accommodate other concepts.

However, I also responded as I did to M.R and Vinnie (whose opinion I’ve come to respect a lot) because I felt that we’d lose the attention of non-IT business leaders as soon as we defined E2.0 as anything except the process of using the new social tools within companies.  There’s a large role for business leaders in this process, and I’ve found that they’re willing, even eager, to discuss what that role is. 

They’re a lot less eager to hear about software as a service, open source development methods, and offshoring.  Their eyes glaze over when these topics come up, and I can almost hear them think "We have an IT department so I don’t have to think about these things."  

Earlier today a colleague wrote "Well it doesn’t take long in IT for any new term that gets any play to get totally hijacked.  Here’s a new extreme for totally redefining Enterprise 2.0" and pointed me to this post at Sandhill.com by Philip Lay.  He writes:

"[T]he three main pillars of Enterprise 2.0 [are] open source programming languages such as the interactive web application development tool Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript & XML), the increasing number of SaaS offerings, and the highly anticipated appearance of hundreds of SOA application modules in the form of re-usable web services."

This definition contains no trace of or allusion to human interaction with technology, which is the core of what I and others have been talking about under the rubric of ‘Enterprise 2.0.’  Lay’s definition consists of three trends: a software development approach (open source), a software delivery approach (software as a service, or SaaS) and a systems integration approach (service-oriented architecture, or SOA).  

Two of these three — SaaS and open source — have nothing to do with changing how a company operates; they’re simply about different and hopefully lower IT cost structures.  SOA is about modular reuse and recombination of code.

As a result, there’s very little in Lay’s definition for a non-IT business leader to get excited about, or to act on.  And yet even without business leader involvement, Lay’s Enterprise 2.0 will yield the following benefits:

"Enterprise 2.0… encapsulates long-held aspirational goals for business and government organizations that wish to become truly responsive to their customers and partners using the most leading-edge information technologies available today. Thus, concepts such as the "real-time" enterprise, as well as advanced "inter-enterprise collaboration", finally become more achievable, at least in theory."

Lay does admit that this will take time:

"Enterprise 2.0 – or, if you prefer, the concept of the real-time, inter-personal, proactive, truly customer-focused enterprise enabled by the best services-based software technologies available today – … will take a decade or so for the changes in business models and operating approaches to take shape."

but the words "at least in theory" above are the only indication in his column that (his definition of) Enterprise 2.0 is anything but a foregone conclusion.

I may be missing something fundamental, but how are Lay’s three developments, even in combination, supposed to lead to a "inter-personal, proactive, truly customer-focused enterprise" that is "truly responsive to… customers and partners"?

I completely fail to see how buying applications that are written in an open source community instead of within a corporation, and/or renting them as a service instead of running them on internal servers, leads to any higher levels of pro-activeness, customer intimacy, responsiveness, etc.

Some think that SOA is a different story.  Proponents of SOA / Web Services / the Semantic Web say huge benefits will be realized as applications become more modularized, re-combinable, and hot-swappable, but as Lay acknowledges "the proposed [SOA] standards relative to vital components such as UDDI and other registries, plus repositories, WSDL, XML markup language, and other protocols expected to navigate between legacy and new applications, have yet to become widely accepted or broadly deployed."

I’d go a lot further than that.  As I wrote in Sloan Management Review a while back, I think this vision is quite distant, if not unattainable.  Systems integration is, for the foreseeable future, going to continue to be slow, painstaking work undertaken only by companies that know they’re going to be doing a lot of business together for some time to come.

IT advocates too often make claims about technologies that are disproportionate to, or even divorced from, what the technologies  actually do.  Is it any wonder, then, that the IT-business dialog is so tenuous and marked by skepticism, and that IT so rarely has a real seat at the table during strategic discussions?  How long should we expect businesspeople to believe technologists’ assertions that a brave new world is at hand, and that it can be inhabited after one more set of trends comes to fruition?

This is clearly an interesting time for corporate information technology, and open source code, SaaS, SOA, and Enterprise 2.0 (as I defined it) are all important trends.  But conflating them, warping them, and overpromising their impact seem like excellent ways to ensure that they’re soon perceived as failures, rather than successes.

I don’t quite know what to do about the fact that my phrase has been co-opted in this way, beyond pointing it out and arguing against it.  I’ll have to ask Clay Christensen what he does every time he hears someone say "we’ve got a disruptive technology" when they really mean "we’ve got a technology we want you to buy."