FastForwarding to a Better Understanding, part 1

I spent Thursday and Friday last week in San Diego at the FastForward conference.  The conference’s blog became a repository for thinking around Enterprise 2.0 in recent weeks, and I’m pleased to report that the event itself did its website proud.  I unfortunately missed Ray Lane and his keynote, but I did get to meet many people whose work I’ve been admiring for a while, including Tim O’Reilly, Dave WeinbergerEuan Semple, David Lavenda, and Adam Carson.  I also got to catch up with (among others) Rod Boothby, Kathleen Gilroy, my former student Joyce Haas (another MBA with a great geek job), and my colleague on the DrKW and Zara cases Anders Sjoman.

I participated in three sessions at FastForward:  a keynote speech in the morning, a lunch at which Jeanette Borzo and I discussed with attendees the results of an Economist Intelligence Unit survey on Web 2.0 awareness among senior corporate managers, and an afternoon roundtable with about 30 very well-informed and opinionated attendees.  Even though the first of these involved speaking to about 1000 people, it was by far the most comfortable because it was a one-way flow of ideas.  

The latter two events, in contrast, involved a great deal of back and forth.  And they caused me to start rethinking some of my most deeply held convictions about Enterprise 2.0.  The next few blog posts will discuss the challenges posed by others’ experiences, viewpoints, and arguments to my own, and the resolutions and conclusions I’ve reached so far as I’ve tried to digest what I learned at FastForward.  

I want to start by recounting a discussion I had with Tim O’Reilly that struck at the very heart of what I mean by Enterprise 2.0, namely my definition of it.  As I posted here earlier, my definition is:

Enterprise 2.0 is the use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers.

Social software enables people to rendezvous, connect or collaborate through computer-mediated communication and to form online communities. (Wikipedia’s definition).

Platforms are digital environments in which contributions and interactions are globally visible and persistent over time.

Emergent means that the software is freeform, and that it contains mechanisms to let the patterns and structure inherent in people’s interactions become visible over time.

Freeform means that the software is most or all of the following:

  • Optional
  • Free of up-front workflow
  • Egalitarian, or indifferent to formal organizational identities
  • Accepting of many types of data

Tim coined the term ‘Web 2.0’ and his conversation with me and remarks to the audience at FastForward reinforced his most recent definition of the term:

Web 2.0 is the business revolution in the computer industry caused by the move to the internet as platform, and an attempt to understand the rules for success on that new platform. Chief among those rules is this: Build applications that harness network effects to get better the more people use them. (This is what I’ve elsewhere called "harnessing collective intelligence." )

Tim is entirely correct about the importance of network effects and collective intelligence within Web 2.0, and therefore also within Enterprise 2.0.  Every Web and Enterprise 2.0 application I can think of gets better as more people use it.  So is my definition above at best incomplete and at worst inaccurate?

Definitions of constructs like Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 are hard because to be useful they have to be short (no one’s going to read or refer to a one-page definition) yet they also have to convey what’s important and distinctive about the construct —  what sets it apart from other related terms.  And as I was working to define E2.0, I felt that network effects weren’t the key differentiator.  Email, Web 1.0, and virtually all communication technologies, after all, are subject to network effects; they all become more valuable to each user as the number of users increases.  

So my definition instead emphasizes another ‘rule for success:’ the use of technology platforms that are initially freeform (meaning that they don’t specify up front roles, identities, workflows, or interdependencies) and eventually emergent (meaning that they come over time to contain patterns and structure that can be exploited by their members).  I continue to see these as the key points of differentiation between E2.0 technologies and previous corporate collaboration and communication tools.  Email is a channel, not a platform; groupware is not freeform and typically not emergent; and knowledge management systems were essentially the opposite of freeform —  they presupposed the structure of the knowledge they were meant to capture.  

My definition is an attempt to highlight these differences, and to point users, managers, and technologists to three key groundrules for establishing Enterprise 2.0:

  • Build platforms, not channels
  • Make sure they’re initially freeform
  • Build in mechanisms for emergence.  These mechanisms include links, tags, powerful search, and in the case of prediction markets prices and bid/ask spreads.

Tim’s definition, it seems to me, provides insight on another critical topic:  how to make sure that Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 technologies continue to deliver value over time.  My definition stresses emergence, but doesn’t acknowledge the fact that a 100 person wiki will display more of it than a 10 person one, or even than 10 separate ones with 10 members each.  Tim’s emphasis on network effects highlights the importance of common platforms rather than fragmented and mutually inaccessible ones, and also reveals a ‘secret ingredient’ for platform designers:  make sure your offerings get better as more people use them.  This will turn people from mere users into evangelists, and from fragmenters into unifiers.

I’m not going to alter my Enterprise 2.0 definition, because I don’t think that network effects are the key differentiator between E2.0 techs and those previously available.  But I am going to recommend that everyone interested in these technologies should repeat "Enterprise 2.0 is subject to network effects" as a mantra and thank their guru Tim O’Reilly for giving it to them.