Did My Students Drink the Kool-Aid?

My MBA course Managing in the Information Age ended with a module on Enterprise 2.0 technologies. Prior to the module’s wrapup class, I used an online survey tool to ask students a few questions, including: 

Imagine that tomorrow you were named CEO of the organization you worked for immediately prior to coming to HBS (please name this organization in your response). What Enterprise 2.0 and/or Web 2.0 technologies, if any, would you introduce? Why? 

I thought I’d share some of their answers after grouping them into a few categories. The excerpts below are organized first of all by business benefit, of which I identified four: capturing and sharing knowledge; finding information, expertise, and people; arriving at better answers; and improving efficiency and speed. These are arbitrary, of course, and the boundaries between them can be quite blurry (as you’ll see), but I did sense that students were interested in E2.0 tools and approaches for different reasons, and wanted to try to capture these differences. 

Within each benefit category, I further divided responses by tie strength. In my bullseye model, Enterprise 2.0 delivers distinct benefits for groups of people who are strongly tied, weakly tied, and only potentially tied. I noticed that students in their responses sometimes focused on one of these groups. Many of the scenarios they outlined, though, cut across all types of tie, so I included an ‘across all ties’ category below. 

I anonymized companies, replacing names with [Industry Descriptions].

As I looked through responses, I found the most striking pattern to be the consistency of the business problems / shortcomings addressable by Enterprise 2.0. Across many industries, company sizes, and corporate cultures a few failure modes and dysfunctions kept reappearing. I’m gratified to see that some of my students seem to share my optimism that Enterprise 2.0 tools and approaches can address them. They suggested a variety of technologies for doing so, but they seemed to be ‘aiming’ these technologies at the same set of business issues. 

What patterns do you see in the responses below?  What, if anything, do you find noteworthy about them? Leave a comment and let us know. 

And stay tuned for more insights and thoughts from my students. I used polls to ask them a number of questions as the course was drawing to a close, and will posting about them here.

Capturing and Sharing Knowledge

Across Strong Ties

[US Consulate]: information that would be beneficial to the employees and the organization as a whole, such as how to enhance our processes, or what new fraud patterns are being found on a specific visa case [could be contained in a wiki].

[Boutique Investment Bank]: The tools we learned about in class are very helpful for small banks since they allow them to level out the playing field with some of the larger shops.  My firm’s greatest asset was the knowledge we captured through networking with clients and prospective clients in the industry.  I think that a Wiki would have been very helpful in optimizing all the information we gathered.  For example, I had to write a memo after each meeting or phone call with a current or prospective client.  It would have been much easier to centralize all the information on a company in one place.

Across Weak Ties

When working for… a non-profit organization in the field of economic development, information sharing was extremely difficult and the tools for monitoring the progress of our work were very buggy  databases that were so hard to work with that we kept relying on paper-based tools.  I would definitely implement wikis to facilitate knowledge sharing between various offices, as well as within a single office.

[Large High-Tech Manufacturer]:  maybe internal blogs for engineers to share best practices & experiences so people don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we build a new fab or develop a new product/process. 

[Movie Studio]: As CEO, I want top and mid-level management to begin blogging. Internal communication of basic facts about what the company was doing simply didn’t happen, and different groups resented requests from others because they didn’t understand why they were needed. I’d instruct these managers that internal blogs should replace their emailed status reports.

[Large Online Company]: Speaking from my own experience in M&A, I think the organization could benefit from a corporate wiki integrated with the corporate intranet.  This could help cut down on the numerous meetings spent explaining a particular transaction to various groups as part of the post-acquisition integration process.

Across Potential Ties

As CEO of [Medical Device Company] I would introduce wiki’s in an attempt to encourage employees to capture tacit knowledge, explicitly across R&D projects, where many groups work on the same problems others have already solved or have attempted to solve.

[Worldwide Consumer Products Company]: In manufacturing there was high turnover and people who would leave the company would take a significant amount of information with them making it difficult and time consuming for the new employees to gather that knowledge from scratch. With a Wiki a new employee would be able to gain easily  that knowledge.

[Military Contractor]: a facility making hydraulic actuators for a new aircraft in California could be struggling with the same engineering challenging as a business unit developing hovercraft in Louisiana, but the two teams would be completely unaware.  I think that the idea that Enterprise 2.0 technologies, and the communities they promote when applied successfully, increase the number of “potential ties” is an incredibly powerful one.

[Large Manufacturing Company]: I would also put social networking of some sort in place for the sales teams to better collaborate since there are usually many different… contacts for each large… customer.

[Military Contractor]: I think that the E2.0 technologies such as blogs and wikis would be extremely helpful for bridging the gap between the two generations currently in defense contracting.  There is a wealth of knowledge possessed by the older generation that is not being transferred.  Numerous times when I was an engineer or even manager, that if I could just read someone else’s previous experiences, it would save me a lot of time and heartache.

Across All Ties

If I am the CEO of [Huge Consulting Company], I would restructure the existing Knowledge Management system, and change it with a better E2.0 technologies, complete with all of its SLATES components. I believe the consultants would be more productive if they could search, link, author, tag, extend, and receive signals from/to the directory of projects were and are conducted by [the company] worldwide.

[Industry not specified]: Right now, the company I’m going to has little to no procedures for capturing and preserving organizational learning, and a wiki and blogging would be a great way to remedy that.

[Medium-sized Consulting Company]: Wiki: great way to collect and improve knowledge about common, repeated tasks (e.g., building an NPV model).

[Huge Tech Company]: I would introduce wikipedia and blogs to the organization because there is a problem with information sharing. [The company] is made up of several acquired companies which have different cultures.  Although they encourage information sharing by publishing papers in the central webpage, few employees actually do so.

[Major Retailer]: The company’s 1500 stores had a lot of extremely bright people who had a lot of knowledge stored in their heads.  It would have been really cool to see something that allowed them to share that knowledge across the enterprise.  For example, I think it would be great to see a Wiki environment that helped sales associates learn about and contribute information on new products and their applications.

[Online Company]: I would simply make my Del.icio.us feed open to the public (which is the default). I think that as CEO, most employees in the company would enjoy reading what the CEO reads. This is easy for me to do, since bookmarking sites is quick. It is also non-disruptive and non-invasive, since I do not need to send annoying emails that would interrupt the productivity of my workers so that they can read about the latest articles I bookmarked. That said, I think this could be quite productive, since most users could gather a strategic perspective on "big ideas" that I would (naturally!) be reading about, which they could relate back to their tasks. Also, it would probably give better transparency into what I am reading about, thinking about and probably interested in. It could help workers align their work with the company objectives and management priorities.

[US Military]: Most military units train a great deal and perform “after action reviews” after training to identify sustaining behaviors, behaviors that can be improved, and best practices.  While beneficial, there are many military units that are spread across the country and the globe.  As a result, best practices across the Army, let alone all services, does not really happen.  If it does, it is after someone analyzes every unit’s best practices and updates a specific manual, creating a newer version.  As you can imagine, this process is slow and tedious.  Enterprise 2.0 could bring together all of the military units across the globe and create an environment where best practices for movements, engagements, and maneuvers across services (Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines) can be optimized and shared real-time.

Finding Information, Expertise, and People

Across Potential Ties

Before HBS I worked as a military contractor for intelligence agencies. I think that encouraging general blogging would be my first step.  I found that there is a ton of talent in the Agency but it is often misplaced or under utilized.  If there was a way to quickly and easily search out people who have interests (ie blog posts) then there would be a lot more connection of problems with the right people to solve them.

[City Government]: I would introduce Enterprise 2.0 in the form of a blog since blogs are best for converting potential ties, strong or weak, into actual ones.  Although a city isn’t the most obvious choice for any tool that involves the word "enterprise", it definitely has customers – in the form of the city’s citizens – who must be served.  Enterprise 2.0 would help the citizens and the city through providing increased transparency; it’s easier to serve citizens if they’ve told you what they want and need, and it’s easier to prevent civil unrest if citizens feel that they know what their elected representatives are doing on their behalf and with their money.

Across All Ties

If I was the new CEO of [Large Consulting Company] I would definitely introduce a company social network/blog system to keep people up to date on who was working on what and who to contact for help and advice.

[Major Investment Bank]: I would also put a social networking site to replace the intranet so that people will know who has worked with who and be able to access the right people in the organization.

[Worldwide Consulting Company]: I would implement a tagging system across all of the internal presentations to make it much easier to find past documents and presentations. In particular, I would tag individual slides so that it’s easy to then compile a full compilation of "market sizing slides" across industries that is automatically updated… As part of this effort, I would ensure technology allows anybody from across the system to pose and answer questions such as "how do I do this complicated function in excel." This is currently done via e-mail to small groups and would benefit from wider distribution.

[Major Online Company]: As a large organization, I found that information sharing across business units was challenging.  When faced with a new project or process that was not within my expertise, I often did not know how to find the right person (who had worked on a similar project or process) to help me.  I also found myself being asked the same questions from different people to share my own expertise, which required a lot of time and effort on my part.  Blogs, wikis, personal webpages, would be extremely helpful in solving these problems.

[Entertainment Company]: A top priority… would be to create a social network that would provide individuals and groups with the opportunity to introduce themselves both from a professional and personal perspective. With such a vast base of employees, a proprietary social network would allow employees to creatively express their passion for the company, its characters and its content and would allow for the creation of connections between those with no current ties. More broadly it would allow for more of a ‘one-company’ feel where executives would have the opportunity to interact in some manner, for example, with legions of ride operators with whom they would never otherwise come in contact.

[Large Investment Bank]: I would immediate employ a more interactive directory. It wasn’t until the last year or so there, that the company launched a firmwide directory with photos. This became extremely helpful because it allowed employees to make introductions to one another (that were not phone-based). If I saw someone in the cafeteria with whom I just had a phone conversation, I could go up to him/her and introduce myself in person. You cannot put a value on this human interaction because it allowed us to open a dialogue we would have not otherwise had and also made each of us more comfortable in dealing with one another (which allowed us to increase our dialogue over the phone). I would extend this technology even further by giving users the ability to see what types of email distributions they are a member of. For example, if I am a member of the Harvard Business School recruiting team, I might want to know who the other members of the team are so I could discuss a particular candidate. Or if I am looking for someone who has knowledge of high yield bonds, I could look at my contacts to see who might be on the high yield listserv to get their help. This is very similar to the "Group" function on Facebook.

Arriving at Better Answers

Across Strong Ties

I worked for a private equity firm / hedge fund and I would use a wiki for creation of investment memos as they tended to be the means of communicating an idea that needed to be understood and committed to by the entire group.  I think it would foster a collaborative approach to the thesis development process that would greatly streamline what was a previously back and forth process held in real time and followed up upon afterward.

The organization is a private equity firm located here in Boston….  I think a wiki could greatly enhance productivity amongst deal teams.  For instance, each deal team could have a specific deal page in which they continue to refine their investment thesis over time as they complete various components of due diligence.  Up until now, a deal team conducted due diligence in discrete bundles of questions.  Then at the end of the process, they would gather all of the work that they completed and try to piece together a final investment thesis or document that summarized their finding to the partnership.  If this work was performed and refined real-time using something like a wiki, the investment thesis would be something of a living document.  Moreover, non-deal team members could access the page to get updates on how the team currently views the deal and what questions remain

Across Weak Ties

[Tech Company] is a complex organization with hundreds of groups being dependant on other groups for their components. The traditional methods of communicating project status is inefficient. I would put prediction markets to overcome that problem

Across Potential Ties

[Medium-sized Tech Company] I should not be too stringent if I want to foster collaboration, innovation, and new ideas. Someone that is not "supposed" to come up with a great new idea in one area because it is not their function might have such an idea and I would hate to see it squashed… 

Across All Ties

[Online Retailer] I would introduce prediction markets. E-commerce is such a dynamic business and yet each employee, being a consumer, has a decent sense of what’s going on. I would use prediction markets to choose new product lines and predict holiday volumes

[Medical Facility]: I would include a forum to allow employees to comment on best practices, error prone processes, etc. It is estimated that 100,000 people are killed by medical errors every year so if there was a way for employees (nurses, doctors, pharmacists, etc.) to air their grievances expeditiously perhaps subsequent errors could be avoided.  I would include the ability to comment anonymously for people that were afraid about blowing the whistle on something or being held accountable for a dangerous situation.

[Worldwide Food Company]: I would put in place a prediction market similar to that at Google.  I think it would be a good method for mgmt to know what the workers are actually thinking.

[Consumer Electronics Company]: I would introduce many 2.0 technologies for internal (employees) and external (customers) usages. The challenge that [the company] is facing right now [is that it] has been too much engineer’s company rather than customer-oriented company. I would try to utilize those tools to bridge the company and the customers so that the company realize everything starts from the customer, not from the self-satisfaction of a few techies.

Improving Efficiency and Speed

Across Strong Ties

[Tech Company]: Instead of sharing information via documents, spreadsheets and emails, I would want employees to use Wiki. This will improve the quality of documentation and at the same time improve productivity and efficiency as well.

I previously worked for a vc fund, which had partners and associates in 5 different cities.  I would introduce wikis to manage internal collaboration, share research about potential investments and track portfolio companies.

Across All Ties

[Worldwide Consulting Company]: a combination of file sharing and wiki-technology within a web-based environment. This would allow all members of the team to access articles, research reports, work-in-progress and archived documents, emerging hypotheses, key questions to resolve etc. The goal would be to have a central location for everybody to share emerging findings – what weekly meetings typically do but in more detail. The main goal of this would be to increase the productivity of individual client teams.

[Another Worldwide Consulting Company]: Another use for a wiki would be a repository for factual information across industries and markets.  One of the most common exercises consultants do is to size a market.  Likely, this sizing of a particular market is done multiple times over the course of a single year by various times.  If this type of knowledge could incorporated into a wiki, efficiency would increase dramatically.

If I were CEO of [Tech Company], I would create a new collaboration space (wiki) for each technology.  I worked as a systems engineer and found it incredibly difficult to gather technical information.  While all info was "on the web" it was in a variety of different places-newsgroups, folders, product website, troubleshooting sites, etc.  I usually ended up calling the company technical expert and this simply isn’t scalable for a large company.

[Worldwide Shipping Company]:  I would introduce an Enterprise 2.0 solution to manage [a large current] initiative [aimed at] placing employee’s satisfaction first and empowering them to take risks by creating a safe and appreciative environment. Numerous programs are set up under this initiative and they are managed by full-time employees on a volunteer basis (even though it is acknowledged in annual performance review). Examples of these initiatives include: weekly newsletter, employer of the month, coffee chats with executives, affinity groups, etc. Often times, these programs are logistically cumbersome and drains critical resources away from important business priorities.