I STILL Agree with Tom. And yet…

Recently in Harvard Business Online my friend Tom Davenport posted another smart piece registering his skepticism over Enterprise 2.0, which he calls "the next small thing" for business (ouch!). Tom and I exchanged thoughts on this via the blogosphere last September (here’s his article, and here’s mine) and have talked about it a couple times since.

Tom is performing an essential service by reminding us not to get too enamored with the cool features of any set of new technologies, and not to confuse the Internet with the Intranet. The Internet is by definition a boss- and hierarchy-free technology platform, while the Intranet most surely is not. I hope Tom won’t mind if I quote him at some length:

"The absence of participative technologies in the past is not the only reason that organizations and expertise are hierarchical. Enterprise 2.0 software and the Internet won’t make organizational hierarchy and politics go away. They won’t make the ideas of the front-line worker in corporations as influential as those of the CEO. Most of the barriers that prevent knowledge from flowing freely in organizations – power differentials, lack of trust, missing incentives, unsupportive cultures, and the general busyness of employees today – won’t be addressed or substantially changed by technology alone. For a set of technologies to bring about such changes, they would have to be truly magical, and Enterprise 2.0 tools fall short of magic."

I’ve never heard it said better, and I couldn’t agree more. Tom is deflating the techno-determinism and -utopianism that I’ve sensed in some E2.0 enthusiasts, and that I’ve been arguing against for a while now. As I posted a while back, my most likely scenario is spotty deployment of E2.0 technologies, not broad or deep adoption. My pessimism comes from exactly the factors that Tom describes.

My optimism, and my interest in the component technologies of E2.0, comes not (solely) from my inherent geekiness, but from the fact that these technologies really are something new under the sun. They’re not extensions or enhancements to previous generations of corporate tools for collaboration and knowledge management; instead, they’re radical departures from them. Technology platforms that are initially freeform and eventually emergent, that require no nerd skills to use, and that contain the SLATES elements I proposed a while back were born on the Internet just a couple years ago, and are now starting to make their way behind the firewall.

Tom is correct to say that these platforms won’t by themselves turn our existing hierarchical, political, and busy companies into egalitarian gestalts of knowledge creation and continuous bottom-up innovation. What they will do, I believe, is give managers who want more lateralism, egalitarianism, crowdsourcing, idea percolation, self-organization, collective intelligence, etc. a new and unprecedented opportunity to obtain them. 

A lot of the interesting discussions around E2.0 now concern managers’ proper roles after installing the new technologies —  whether their job consists more of intervening, or of getting out of the way. Another interesting topic, I think, is figuring out how many managers are truly interested and enthusiastic about the possibilities brought by these new tools. Such managers would have to be somewhat technically literate, but more importantly they’d have to really believe the corporate mission statement boilerplate that "people are our most important asset… we strive to encourage collaboration and participation… we value the contributions of all our team members… we pride ourselves on our healthy and collegial work environment… etc." 

How many bosses and executives really have this as their model of how their organizations should work? I don’t mean at all to sound jaundiced about managers or the profession of management, and I’ve come across very few corporate fascists in my career. But hierarchy and command-and-control mindsets are the longstanding and safe defaults, and they’re quite hard to let go of. Furthermore, I think it’ll only take a few missteps to knock a nascent E2.0 environment off course, causing people to retreat to their old, safe behaviors.

My enthusiasm about Enterprise 2.0, even after acknowledging Tom’s points, stems from three sources. First is the fact that, as discussed above, its component technologies are both novel and very valuable. Second is a feeling that there are actually a lot of managers who want to make concrete this fuzzy notion of empowerment, and to get out of the way enough to let their teams do all the work they’re capable of. These managers want to address the dysfunctions that Tom articulates so well, and they’ll seize on any tools that help them do so. Third is a belief in the power of competition. If Enterprise 2.0 technologies and mindsets do in fact help some companies get ahead by creating and disseminating more knowledge, innovating more, reacting faster, etc. then interest will grow, and so might new approaches.

For some people, Enterprise 2.0 will be the next big deal if its component technologies are widely and thoroughly deployed across companies, like email and Office are at present. By this definition, though, the Toyota Production System is not a big deal. TPS is deeply deployed within probably only a handful of companies outside Toyota itself. Many other organizations have adopted small portions of it, but full-fledged TPS remains quite rare. However, it’s helped Toyota become the most successful (and currently almost the largest) company in one of the world’s biggest industries, and it’s spawned a massive amount of research, writing, and attempted imitation. I’d certainly call TPS a big deal not because of its ubiquity, but because of its novelty and impact. I’m not saying that Enterprise 2.0 is certain to have anything like the impact of TPS —  I just want to point out that there are many ways that a concept can be a big deal in the world of business.