FastForwarding to a Better Understanding, Part 2

In my morning keynote at last week’s FASTForward conference I stressed the criticality of senior management involvement in Enterprise 2.0 initiatives.  I do this in all of my teaching, consulting, and expounding on the topic because my experiences have shown me that simply deploying the new tools of freeform digital collaboration and expecting Web 2.0 dynamics to appear behind the firewall is a very poor strategy.  I often use the shorthand "If we build it, they will come" to describe this strategy, then talk about why it doesn’t work and what managers, especially top managers, need to do to encourage Enterprise 2.0.  

I argued in my keynote that Enterprise 2.0 technologies are going to have the effect of making companies less alike, even though the technologies themselves are cheap, widely available, and straightforward to install.  This apparently paradoxical result stems from the fact that even though the ‘raw materials’ of E2.0 — the tools themselves — are easily obtainable, the ‘finished goods’ of E2.0 — an Intranet that has lots of the desirable properties of the Internet, yet few of its drawbacks —  are valuable, rare, inimitable, and non-substitutable (the so called ‘VRIN’ attributes).  The job of management, I said, is to lead the work of converting these raw materials into finished goods.

At a lunchtime discussion that same day, I heard a very different view.  It was articulated most clearly by Euan Semple, who has a great deal of street cred on the issue.  Euan was a key figure in the BBC’s sustained and apparently quite successful E2.0 efforts, and now helps other organizations articulate and execute their new visions for collaboration and knowledge sharing. It was a real pleasure to meet him and hear what he had to say.

This pleasure was mitigated a bit when I heard Euan disagreeing with some of the key points I’d tried to make in the morning speech (although he made his points very gracefully, and without any sharp elbows).  In particular he stressed that senior management could really screw up E2.0 efforts by intervening in them too forcefully, too early, too often, or in too hamhanded a fashion.  He described one of his tasks at the BBC as providing cover for the nascent E2.0 initiatives and protecting them from too much ‘management.’  As he talked I recalled the great Dilbert cartoon in which his pointy-haired boss appears behind him saying "I’ve decided to be more of a hands-on manager," then gives directions like "Move the mouse… up… up… over… more…  NOW CLICK IT!! CLICK IT!!"  Clearly, this is not what any of us want.

As I listened to Euan and others during our discussion I heard a few key points:  

  • E2.0 efforts can and do succeed when they’re bottom-up rather than top-down.  If they’re bottom-up they’re more likely to be in response to a real and immediate business need, as opposed to being an abstract good idea or headquarters desideratum.
  • E2.0 efforts can lose their cachet or ‘cool factor’ when they enter the mainstream. They’re not pirate radio any more; they’re corporate rock.
  • Official E2.0 deployments often come with so many policies, procedures, guidelines, codes of conduct, and warnings (both explicit and implicit) that they choke off any real activity.  For example, many of us have seen long, formal policy statements on employee blogging that read as if they could be reduced to one sentence:  "We really don’t want you to blog."
  • E2.0 initiatives are delicate experiments, especially in their early stages, and they can easily be derailed by clumsy intervention even if it’s well-intentioned.
  • You can’t impose self-organization.

These are excellent points, and I agree with all of them.  But as I listened to Euan talk about what did at the BBC and elsewhere, his activities sounded a lot like the managerial work I’d outlined earlier in the day:

  • Coaching
  • Rewarding
  • Leading by example
  • Setting expectations, norms, and practices
  • Building culture

So perhaps we’re really not far apart after all.  In fact, as the head of Knowledge Management at the BBC, I’d say that Euan actually was a senior manager.

In addition, one of the reasons I emphasize the role of top managers is that in some cases middle management will be hostile to the approaches and tools of E2.0.  As I wrote earlier, not everyone wants information and knowledge to be widely visible and flow freely within an organization, because they have something to hide or because they gain power, centrality, or status by acting as a gatekeeper.  A coalition of top managers and front-line knowledge workers is often the best coalition to do battle against such turf-protectors.

Finally, the main problem I foresee with a bunch of discrete bottom-up E2.0 initiatives is that they can easily become a set of mutually inaccessible walled gardens (in fact, this might be the default outcome).  When this is the case, the Intranet is not like the Internet; instead, it’s like a set of discrete and unconnected Internets, each of which must be separately navigated, searched, tagged, etc.  The Internet is phenomenally valuable to us because there’s only one of it —  one vast and constantly growing web of information that we can skip around with ease thanks to its densely interconnected structure, one that (like a geodesic dome) gets stronger as it gets bigger, and one that displays emergence.  Perhaps the best reason for an organization, especially a larger one, to insist on a single E2.0 environment, and to impose its technical standards (but not its content) is to create the conditions for an Intranet that has all these properties, or at least a real shot at attaining them.

What do you think?  What are the drawbacks and advantages of top-down and bottom-up support for Enterprise 2.0?  And how different are they, really?