Enterprise 2.0 May be Fine for the Business, But What About the IT Department?

In my last post I asserted that blogs were relatively unpopular in current opinion surveys of Enterprise 2.0 technologies. A recent article in Information Week underscores this point; internal and external blogs were rated as "very important" or "critical" to the organization by only 13% of respondents in a poll of 110 IT and business professionals (it was not revealed how respondents were selected). The least popular technology of all was social networking software (SNS), about which only 5% of respondents were similarly positive.

At first I found these data a bit dismaying (let’s assume this survey is in fact representative). As I wrote recently and discussed at last week’s Defrag conference, SNS and blogs are prototypical E2.0 technologies to bring together weakly tied and potentially tied knowledge workers, representatively. SNS is a powerful tool for building, learning from, and exploiting a network of people with whom you have weak ties, and a corporate blogosphere can efficiently let knowledge workers learn about people with whom they should form ties. A great deal of research indicates that these are both very valuable activities within organizations, and that E2.0 tools and approaches might well have their greatest impact at the two middle rings of my ‘bullseye model’ (this model and the ideas underpinning it are explained more fully in my post, and in several other blog posts aggregated here.).

So a continued lack of enthusiasm for these tools is not good news for us E2.0 optimists. But it’s way too early to despair, or even to start getting discouraged. We need to keep in mind that most E2.0 tools are new, and that their acceptance depends on shifts in perspective on the part of business leaders and decision makers, shifts for which the word ‘seismic’ might not be an overstatement. Enterprise 2.0 tools have no inherent respect for organizational boundaries, hierarchies, or job titles. They facilitate self-organization and emergent rather than imposed structure. They require line managers, compliance officers, and other stewards to trust that users will not deliberately or inadvertently use them inappropriately. They require these stewards to become comfortable with collaboration environments that “practice the philosophy of making it easy to correct mistakes, rather than making it difficult to make them” as Jimmy Wales has said. They require, in short, the re-examination and often the reversal of many longstanding assumptions and practices. It is not in the least disrespectful or contemptuous of today’s managers to say that it will take them some time to get used to this.

After a little reflection, the survey results didn’t distress me much. They indicate that E2.0 evangelists and optimists have some work ahead of them, but we already knew that.

Another aspect of the article troubled me a lot more. This was the assumption, at times almost explicit, that information technologies should be evaluated based on their impact on and benefits to the IT organization, not to the business as a whole. The article contains a remarkable "Impact Assessment" table that purports to evaluate the risks and benefits of Web 2.0 to the IT organization, the Business organization, and Business competitiveness. It appears as if each of these three is given equal weight, which is simply extraordinary. What kind of responsible decision maker within a company would treat the three areas as equally important?

What’s even more amazing is that Web 2.0 had the maximum possible benefit score for business competitiveness and a greater level of benefit than risk in this area, yet the table concluded that "Web 2.0 technology looks like a losing proposition for large organizations in general, IT departments in particular." I may be missing something fundamental, but it seems that the losing proposition is to not adopt technologies that help with competitiveness. The table and the article as a whole, though, apparently make the opposite point. This just makes no sense to me. Lively debates continue over what the purpose of a company is or should be, but I haven’t yet heard that its purpose should be perpetuation of its existing ways of doing business, or of its IT organization, and I can’t see why these considerations should be given any real weight when novel technologies are evaluated.

Among the least kind terms I hear used to describe IT organizations are ‘priesthood’ and ’empire.’ These words imply a belief that corporate IT departments consciously exclude outsiders and outside influences, and are concerned primarily with expanding themselves. If this is the case, then Enterprise 2.0 will certainly be resisted by IT; its tools are cheap, often housed outside the firewall, and require relatively little configuration, support, and maintenance. Enterprise 2.0 comes from outside the priesthood, in other words, and doesn’t expand the empire. As the article says in its opening sentence, "forget outsourcing. the real threat to IT pros could be Web 2.0." I think a larger threat to the continued health and relevance of corporate IT departments might be the worldview underlying that sentence.