A Technology Flip Test: Introducing Channels in a World of Platforms

The writer and  and cultural observer Stanley Crouch, when asking his audience to consider a given issue, sometimes proposes a ‘flip test’ in which important elements of the status quo are reversed.  It’s an effective way to unmask hidden assumptions and double standards.  And it can work quite well for questions around technology.

One useful flip test consists of mentally switching the order of appearance of a new technology and an existing one.  At a conference years back I was sitting on a panel that was asked to talk about future of the book.  As the discussion was heating up about the inevitability of the electric media, someone on the panel (I wish it had been me) proposed a flip test.  He said  "Let’s say the world has only e-books, then someone introduces this technology called ‘paper.’  It’s cheap, portable, lasts essentially forever, and requires no batteries.  You can’t write over it once it’s been written on, but you buy more very cheaply.  Wouldn’t that technology come to dominate the market?"  It’s fair to say that comment changed the direction of the panel.

So as talk about the risks and possible downsides of Enterprise 2.0 technologies continues, a flip test might bring some clarity to the discussion.  This flip test consists of imagining that communication platforms (like E2.0 tools) are already in place, and then channels show up within corporations.

Most current collaboration technologies, including email, instant messaging, and cell phone texting are what I call channels.  They essentially keep communications private.  People beyond the sender and receiver(s) can’t view the contents of information sent over channels, and usually don’t even know that communication has taken place.  Information sent via channels isn’t widely visible, consultable, or searchable.  And no record exists of who sent what to whom, so channels leave no trace of collaboration patterns.  

The new generation of collaboration technologies that are underpinning Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0, in contrast, are all platforms.  They’re repositories of digital content where contributions are globally visible (everyone with access to the platform can see them) and persistent (they stick around, and so can be consulted and searched for).  Access to platforms can be restricted (to, for example, only members of an R&D lab or a team working on a particular deal) so that proprietary content isn’t universally visible within a company, but the goal of a platform technology is to make content widely and perennially available to its members. A lot of content on this blog and other writing on W2.0 and E2.0 has articulated the desirable properties of digital platforms.

So here’s the flip test:  imagine that current corporate collaboration and communication technologies were exclusively E2.0 platforms — blogs, wikis, etc. —  and all of a sudden a crop of new channel technologies —  email, instant messaging, text messaging —  became available. In other words, imagine the inverse of the present situation.  What would happen?  How, in the flip-test universe, would the new channel technologies be received?

I imagine two main outcomes.  First, users would adopt the new channel technologies for private communications, but not for much more than that.  They’d quickly see that it’s less efficient to use channels, and less helpful to their colleagues.  In other words, whether they were thinking selfishly or selflessly they’d keep using platforms.  And the endowment effect would be working in favor of the platform technologies they’re already using.

Second, many constituencies would hate the new technologies, and strenuously advocate that they be kept out.  In a company accustomed to platforms, introducing channels would be perceived as asking for trouble.  They’d be seen as tools that would let sensitive information leave the company and jump over Chinese walls, let sexual harassment and other inappropriate behavior flourish below the radar, and let people waste as much time as they wanted to chatting with each other about irrelevant stuff.  What’s even worse, compliance officers and other managers would feel largely powerless to stop this bad behavior, because channel traffic is so hard to monitor.  They couldn’t read all employee emails, and sampling would be unlikely to catch all the problems quickly enough to head them off.  

For managers accustomed to platforms where all contributions are immediately and universally visible and traceable, channel technologies would seem scary.  I could imagine that a common response, upon hearing about them, would be something like "No way.  The risks of email and IM are too great.  If people need to talk privately, let them pick up the phone.  We’ll set up a few email accounts so that we can exchange information with the outside world, but we’re sticking with our platforms for internal communication."

What does this flip test reveal?  To me, it indicates that many companies are paying far too much attention to the possible risks and downsides of E2.0 platforms, given that they’ve already deployed technologies that have much greater potential for abuse.  I’m not advocating that channel technologies should be shut off and entirely replaced by platforms; I’m just trying to highlight the relative risks of the two technology categories.  The flip test is a good way to do this.  

What do you think?  Am I missing something, or downplaying some important downsides about E2.0?  Or is the flip test telling us what I think it is?