People, Computers, and People People

I spent half a day recently talking about Enterprise 2.0 with a group of senior human resources managers from very large organizations. I took away two broad impressions from the session, of which one was unanticipated and encouraging while the other was less surprising and less optimistic. 

First, the good news: these executives were sincerely enthusiastic about E2.0, more so than I expected them to be. After many years of teaching senior managers, one thing I’ve noticed is that when confronted with a new phenomenon many of them respond by immediately and reflexively engaging in risk analysis and mitigation. This does not mean that they’re unimaginative pessimists, or that climbing the corporate ladder has drummed all the joy and sense of possibility out of them. It simply means that part of job is to anticipate negative outcomes within their areas of responsibility and take reasonable steps to prevent them from occurring. 

IT executives see all the bad things computers can do, and all the bad things that can be done to them, and get paid in part to make sure these things don’t happen. When I talk with CIOs I’m always struck by how quickly they focus on the security concerns related to E2.0, and how many seem to feel that the benefits won’t be worth the risks. 

HR executives see all the bad things people can do, so I was expecting them to have a similarly cautious reaction to E2.0 (which is a concept at the intersection of people and computers). Instead, I found the group to be truly excited about the possibilities offered by emergent social software platforms. I got the strong impression that for these people phrases like ‘engaging the workforce’ and ‘our people are our most valuable asset’ are not corporate boilerplate; they are instead words that guide the work of HR leaders. 

I asked the group to talk about the risks associated with E2.0, and they quickly brought up the concern of sensitive information jumping over the firewall. Then they stopped, and waited politely for me to move on to the next topic. Instead, I pressed them to think harder, and to imagine employees in their companies using the new platforms to harass coworkers, post hate speech or porn, rant about their bosses, etc. And the response I heard back was essentially "We suppose those things could happen, and to some extent they probably will, but we’re not that concerned about them." This group of HR executives, in other words, seemed very comfortable trusting their companies’ employees to do the right thing with E2.0 tools

One of the participants related a telling anecdote. Her company employs a lot of young people, and became concerned a while back how the company was being discussed and represented in their blogs, MySpace pages, Facebook profiles, etc. So she and some colleagues decided to go look at all these environments. She learned that a lot of the young employees mentioned their company as part of their digital identity, and that they virtually always did so in appropriate ways. She said that the worst thing she found, after a lot of looking around, was a photo of a training session in which account numbers were visible on a blackboard. It turned out that they were dummy account numbers and that the person who posted the photo, when made aware of the concern, immediately apologized and took it down. 

I’m still not quite sure why the people people were more optimistic about E2.0 than the computer people have been. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that employees can learn over time and evolve their behavior, while computers can’t. As a result, the workforce needs less constant babysitting and can be trusted much more than the IT infrastructure.

The pessimistic-yet-expected conclusion from the session is that many large organizations are not yet ready to embrace the deep lateralization that comes with Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0. Lateralization here means letting parties interact, communicate, and share information directly with each other without a lot of built-in filtering or moderation. The HR executives uniformly felt that their companies would not allow their websites to include a ‘community’ section where customers could hold discussions, post issues, and help each other find solutions. "Our lawyers / compliance officers / CEO would never allow it" was the common conclusion. When we brought up the fact that the same customers are surely interacting with each other somewhere on the Internet the imagined retort from the lawyers / compliance officers / CEO was "Fine. But at least they’re not doing in within our domain name, so we can’t be perceived as giving tacit or explicit acknowledgment of the problems being discussed."

There’s a lot of evidence that community forums cut costs, save time, and increase customer satisfaction. But the deeply conservative attitude toward lateralization I wrote about a while back still seems to predominate. The question I wasn’t astute enough to ask the HR executives was "Do your companies have differing attitudes toward external vs. internal lateralization? You say it wouldn’t fly to allow customers to talk directly with each other on the corporate Web site. Will it fly to let employees do the same on the corporate Intranet?"

So let’s throw this question open. Please leave a comment and tell us what you think: are the companies you know well more comfortable with lateralization on the Intranet than on the public Web site? If so, why do you think this is? Or are they equally comfortable / uncomfortable with both? Finally, what will it take to increase corporate comfort at both levels, and to accelerate Enterprise 2.0?