FastForwarding to a Better Understanding, Part 3

For me, the most surprising moment at the recent FastForward conference came during an afternoon roundtable discussion. During this session I kept asking questions about the most likely adoption paths for E2.0 technologies, and some participants started politely voicing their frustrations with this line of inquiry. One person eventually said something like 

"Could we please talk about something other than adoption?  It’s just not that interesting.  These technologies are going to get adopted over time just like other corporate technologies have been in the past. The interesting questions have to do with how companies will use them, not if they will."

After you spend a while teaching via the case method, you develop a sense for whether one person’s comment represents a widely-held view. And it seemed that this one did. I found this amazing, and said so. I explained that I was interested in adoption issues because I didn’t think that there was any single adoption path for information technologies, corporate or otherwise. 

I reminded the audience that there were plenty of conferences devoted to knowledge management (KM) systems and approaches in past years, and that these events had almost certainly featured rooms full of enthusiasts wondering exactly what the future was going to look like, and probably paying very little attention to the possibility that the future would be KM-free. I asked the room how many people wanted to be remembered as this decade’s equivalents of KM enthusiasts and evangelists, and got a few chuckles.

But it still felt as if most people weren’t with me —  as if most participants in the round table felt that enterprise 2.0 was essentially a historical inevitability.  So I asked for a show of hands. I asked "How many of us, when we look into the crystal ball that shows the organization of the near future —  say 3 to 5 years from now —  see widespread deployment of E2.0 technologies?"

Almost every hand in the room went up.

At this point I completely lost my poker face. I sputtered "You have got to be kidding me!!" or something equally profound as I stared around the room.  I noticed that a couple people from large Wall St. firms had their hands in the air, even though they had minutes earlier been discussing how hard it was to get their colleagues to adopt any new technologies or collaborate in new ways. I said to one of these people "You were just telling us that some people where you work still have their assistants print out their emails for them, and how if your colleagues don’t immediately see how a new tool will help them make money, they’re not interested. Why is your hand in the air?"

His response was essentially that five years is a very long time, more than enough for the virtues of E2.0 tools and approaches to become evident, even within large, busy companies like his. He also reminded me of a point I made earlier —  that young people now entering the workforce from college use platforms (like all E2.0 technologies) rather than channels (like email) as the default for communication and collaboration, and that these new employees would drive adoption. Finally, he said that he already saw significant interest and energy in his company, and that he’d been given a mandate to "figure out what’s going on with Web 2.0, and how we can take advantage of it."

A number of other participants in the discussion picked up and extended these arguments, and I noticed that more than a couple of them were looking at me a little strangely. Was I just playing devil’s advocate, or did I really believe that the new tools and approaches might not take off?

I was doing both, and I’m not sure in what proportion. As I wrote at the end of last year, my most likely scenario for the near-term future of Enterprise 2.0 is somewhere between niche deployment and spotty mainstream adoption. The things I’ve learned since then —  from field research, conversations, other writers, commenters on my blog, and comparatively large surveys like the one that just came out in Information Week —  have reinforced this view. 

I want to state very clearly that I still believe E2.0 to be a better mousetrap.  Platforms for freeform collaboration capture both the practices and the outputs of knowledge work so that they can be consulted by current, future, and prospective colleagues.  These platforms also enable emergence. And despite the 9X problem of email, they do stand a good chance of becoming the default collaboration tools. Teenagers and collegians, after all, can choose between email and platforms like MySpace and Facebook, and I keep hearing that they prefer the platforms.

My skepticism about any wildfire spread of E2.0 stems from the fact that the new tools and approaches will succeed over time only in environments that have a set of characteristics.  Technical characteristics are the most obvious of these.  As the IWeek survey highlighted, security and access control remain key concerns among technologists, and they’ll have to be addressed before most IT departments give their blessings to Enterprise 2.0. In addition, the user interfaces of many (most?) current tools will also need to be improved. A student told me last week that employees at a large tech company she’s familiar with used to use wikis heavily, but now they just use Google Docs for group-level collaboration.  The Docs are trivially easy to set up and edit, and even though they don’t offer full wiki functionality (yet) they work well enough for many purposes.

This example highlights to me that no matter what we enthusiasts, technologists, pundits, vendors, and managers want to have happen, users are going to vote with their feet when it comes to collaboration technologies. They’re going to adopt the ones that make the most sense for them, not for any greater good. Some corporate technologies can and should be imposed on their users. But how would you effectively mandate that employees collaborate primarily via wikis, or tag lots of pages so that a corporate folksonomy develops, or trade in the internal prediction market? The idea itself seems a little ridiculous.

So let’s review where we are. Heavy-handed adoption approaches aren’t going to work. Virtually all companies already have a collaboration technology, called email, that works pretty well for most people. Most companies also have a large ‘Empty Quarter‘ of employees who aren’t especially young or especially technical. Many E2.0 tools could be easier to use, especially for the generations that entered the workforce prior to Web 2.0 (to say nothing of Web 1.0). And many, many managers believe that they have higher priorities than fostering the use of a new set of collaboration technologies, especially if it turns out that encouraging their adoption and productive use requires a bit of work.

I believe that managers and companies that are in fact willing to do this work will gain valuable capabilities and quite possibly get a leg up on the competition.  But can you see why I think there might not be a lot of them, at least in the short term?