Uses for a Newborn Baby

In Paris on the 21st of November, 1783, two brave Frenchmen made the first manned flight in history using the hot air balloon invented by the Montgolfiere brothers. According to lore Benjamin Franklin was among the crowd that witnessed the event. All spectators were impressed, but some were still skeptical. One grabbed Franklin’s arm and said "Sir, frankly, what’s the use of flying in the air?" Franklin replied "Sir, what’s the use of a newborn baby?"

As we watch Enterprise 2.0 start to grow up —  as we observe the technologies of freeform, emergent collaboration being deployed within companies —  now is a good time to formulate at least provisional answers to Franklin’s question. At this stage, of course, it’s impossible to foresee all the ways E2.0 tools will be used, or even what all these tools will be.  But as I and others have watched this newborn we’ve seen it doing a few interesting things.

Here’s my overview of current corporate uses of Enterprise 2.0 technologies —  blogs, wikis, tagging systems, prediction markets, signals like RSS, etc.. Let me make a couple points about this list.  First, I guarantee that it’s incomplete.  I’m sure companies are doing many more things with the new tools, and I hope that readers will leave a comment and let us know about them. Second, the uses appearing below are not mutually exclusive.  Instead, they bleed into each other frequently, especially over time.  An E2.0 infrastructure can be deployed with one set of intentions, but come to be employed for very different purposes. This is exactly the point of freeform and emergent collaboration —  it’s collaboration where no one has to accurately guess the end point up front. Clever managers, entrepreneurs, users, and other innovators will figure out the most powerful uses of the new tools over time.

What have they come up with so far? We’ve seen Enterprise 2.0 infrastructures used:

  • For collaborative document production.  Rod Boothby said that when he was a consultant at least one of his clients used wikis to let groups collectively build documents such as Sarbanes-Oxley compliance statements. Zoho‘s Office Suite, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and other offerings make it simple to open up a report, a spreadsheet, or a presentation for group editing.
  • To build an encyclopedia. Some organizations are following Wikipedia’s lead and using E2.0 techs to build knowledge repositories. This is particularly attractive for professional service firms, and for educational institutions. When I set up my course wiki at the start of this semester, I told my students that their goal should be to capture all the learnings from the course in one place. I’ll burn it onto CDs at the end of the semester and hand them out, so they’ll have a Managing in the Information Age reference work that contains not just their notes and conclusions, but those from all of their colleagues as well.
  • As all-purpose ‘teamware.‘ This was the first use I came across at the first E2.0 case studies I wrote, at the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort. Some managing directors in the bank saw E2.0 tools simply as better mousetraps for keeping everyone in their organization on the same page about the agenda for upcoming meetings, outstanding tasks and action items, etc. 
  • As a ‘war room’ for fast-changing situations. I’ve heard from a couple sources that the flu wiki has often been the best source for up-to-the-minute information about Avian Flu. The excellent New York Times Magazine story about ‘open source spying‘ relates how the DIA has started using E2.0 tools to let intelligence analysts quickly assemble and maintain sites about nascent threats and situations.
  • For knowledge broadcast. After I taught a couple classes on E2.0 to the participants in HBS’s Owner/President Manager program, one of them came to my office to talk over an idea.  He ran a commercial cleaning company that had many branches around the country, each of which was highly autonomous. One problem with this org. structure was that the person in (for example) the Seattle office who had the company’s deepest information about how to clean a newly introduced carpet without damaging it had no effective way to share this information. According to the owner this person had no incentive to hoard such information; the corporate culture was a pretty healthy and open one. So he (the owner) was excited about the idea of introducing a blogging tool behind the firewall to let employees broadcast their expertise to their colleagues. I thought this was a fine idea, and when I learned recently from Forrester that blogs are one of the E2.0 tools that CIOs are least excited about I wondered if they were missing something important, or if I was. 
  • For broadcast search. my colleague Karim Lakhani has done some fascinating research on how R&D organizations are using Innocentive to post problems for which they can’t find solutions.  Innocentive puts these problems up on the Web and lets anyone take a crack at solving them (Innocentive makes sure anonymity is preserved and that IP rights are properly transferred). Karim calls this phenomenon ‘broadcast search’ and has documented how effective it is at generating solutions to vexing problems. I see small-scale examples of this on my course wiki all the time. Students have set up a ‘questions for the geeks’ page where they post their queries.  One of the posts to this page asked what RSS was.  This question got quickly and thoroughly answered, thereby enlightening not only the student who asked the question initially, but also everyone else who visited the page. In this case, the fact that the search was broadcast and answered on a public platform meant up to 80 people were made better off, instead of just one.
  • For ‘crowdsourcing,’ or farming out a large task to an amorphous crowd of people and letting them decide what element(s) of it they want to work on. Karim and I are writing a case on Cambrian House, a Canadian software ‘maker’ that’s relying on its crowd to tell it what to build, and also to do a lot of the coding. As I’m writing the political blog Talking Points Memo (TPM) has uploaded thousands of pages of documents from the White House relating to the firing of several US attorneys general. TPM is asking its readers to help sift through this mass of information and highlight items of interest. This process has evidently already yielded some interesting results.
  • To express collective judgment.This is even more specific than collective intelligence; it refers to letting a community weigh in with their opinions on topics of interest. Prediction markets are a very powerful tool for accomplishing this, as companies like Google have learned. I challenged my students outpick me in the March Madness tournament, telling them that I was confident in my abilities because college basketball was a passion of mine. This was a baldfaced lie (I went to MIT, after all). I know nothing about college basketball, but have faith that the traders at Tradesports and NewsFutures do. I used the prediction markets at these sites to make my picks, and am currently in 5th place out of 24 entries. I think I’ll rise in the rankings, too, because no one else has more potential correct picks remaining than I do.

What else is going on out there?  What other uses for this newborn baby are people seeing?  Leave a comment and let us know, please.