In most work environments there are plenty of mandatory-use information technologies. If an employee wants to pay a vendor, take a customer order, submit an expense, schedule a service call, or participate in many of the other formal, well-defined business processes that companies execute for a living, they very often have no alternative except to use the enterprise systems that support those processes. It’s highly uncommon (to put it mildly) to find environments where people still get orders shipped by yelling down to the factory floor, or get subcontractors paid by walking into a colleague’s office and saying "Hey, could you cut me a check for $6500? I gotta pay this guy…" Instead, people use Enterprise IT each and every time they want to get these jobs done.
But when it comes to collaborations and interactions that take place around, on top of, or in parallel with these formal business processes, the situation is almost precisely the reverse. For such collaborations, it’s almost meaningless to speak of mandatory-use IT. "Employees will use email for all unstructured interactions" or, conversely, "Employees will never use email for unstructured interactions" are equally ludicrous statements. They’re dictatorial, procrustean, and unenforceable, all at the same time. And substituting other technologies — IM, groupware, wikis, blogs, the phone — doesn’t bring these sentences into the reality-based community.
For work outside the formal, enterprise IT-enabled business processes of the company, employees will use the available tools that they find most convenient, and ease of use and usefulness are the two best predictors of use.
This brings us to Euan Semple‘s recent short but very sharp post describing the first, second, and third easiest routes to Enterprise 2.0 success. The first, as he says, is to simply do nothing as a manager — install no new software behind the firewall, and provide no guidance to the workforce. I agree almost 100% with his predicted result:
"your bright, thoughtful and energetic staff will do [Enterprise 2.0] for you. Trouble is they will do it outside your firewall on bulletin boards, instant message exchanges personal blogs and probably on islands in Second Life and you will have lost the ability to understand it, influence it, and integrate it into how you do business."
The only reason I don’t completely agree here is that I think Euan is assuming that in this scenario managers and IT departments are not blocking these tools at the firewall — they’re not precluding employees from using these technologies while at work. Some readers probably said to themselves "Wait a minute — it’s not ludicrous at all for managers to say that employees will never use wikis for unstructured interactions. All they’d have to do to enforce this policy is refuse to install wiki software on the Intranet and block a few domain names. Viola — no wiki use!"
I’ve been in many offices where I couldn’t check gmail, and it’s not hard at all to imagine that many companies will try to keep employees from putting company data beyond the firewall on servers hosted by Socialtext, Zoho, Google, 37 Signals, or any of the other collaboration service providers. Whether or not this is a smart approach, it’s clearly a feasible one. When companies take it, I can imagine that Euan’s bright, young, thoughtful, and energetic staff will resort to ‘pirate collaboration’ using their home computers. Or they’ll find that too much trouble, and just keep using email for everything. In either case he’s right; something will have been lost.
Euan’s also right with his labels for the second and third easiest E2.0 approaches: "Get out of the way" and "Keep the energy levels up," respectively. A couple recent posts have portrayed me and Euan as being engaged in a debate. I’ve checked with him, and we’re pretty sure we’re vociferously agreeing.