Enterprise 2.0: The Friendster Years?

One of the great benefits of teaching via the case method is serendipity: students often come up with better insights or teaching points than the ones I have in my notes when I walk into the classroom. This can be scary, as can all things emergent, but once you embrace it it’s great fun and the semester becomes an opportunity to learn, not just to teach.

It’s also great fun when students bring up facts, discussions, and conclusions from previous classes. Their doing so gives me some confidence that the course is cumulative, rather than just a string of class sessions. One of a professor’s nightmares is the thought that students walk out of each class and empty their minds of the previous 80 minutes, at least until it’s time to study for finals. References to previous classes keep this nightmare at bay.

Both of these happy phenomena occurred during a discussion of Enterprise 2.0 in my recently-completed MIA course. Earlier in the semester we’d discussed the Wikipedia case I wrote with Karim Lakhani. The case touches on the issue of deletionism vs. inclusionism in the Wikipedia community, using the encyclopedia’s article on Enterprise 2.0 to illustrate the tension. 

I told the class how I asked Jimmy Wales at a conference whether he was an inclusionist or deletionist. Given his recent experience initiating an article only to see it nominated for speedy deletion, I thought he’d condemn the ascendancy of the deletionism, acknowledging that it had gone too far.

Instead, he gave a brilliant answer. He said that he was neither an inclusionist nor a deletionist, but an eventualist. He had faith in the Wikipedia community and its processes, values, norms, deliberative abilities, etc., and trusted that it would eventually get this issue right, even if at present the community were leaning too far in one direction.  I told the MIA students this story in class, and we had a great discussion about whether Wales’s faith was well-founded. 

Later in the semester I asked students to read my initial Sloan Management Review article on Enterprise 2.0 and a couple blog posts. I then asked them to rate their optimism (on a 7-point scale) about the potential benefits for companies of E2.0 ignoring all adoption challenges as well as their optimism about the actual benefits taking these challenges into account. 

For most students the gap between the two numbers was large; they were optimistic (often highly so) about potential benefits, and much more guarded about actual ones. In class we started talking about why. 

As this discussion progressed I felt that it was proceeding at too low a level – focusing on details and single data points ("wikis are too hard to edit," "We could blog behind the firewall at my last company, but almost no one did," etc.) rather than on the ‘big picture.’ More troubling, I didn’t quite know what the big picture was, or what I wanted it to be. Did I want my students to leave class thinking that Enterprise 2.0 was as inevitable as the tide, or that it would be throttled by weak software?

As I was turning this question over in my mind while simultaneously trying to guide class discussion, one of my students bailed me out. "We should all be like Jimmy Wales," he said. "We should all be Enterprise 2.0 eventualists. We see the benefits of adopting these new tools and approaches, and we should have faith that at least some companies will also. I feel like we’re at the Friendster stage with Enterprise 2.0, and we’ll get to the Facebook stage eventually."

I picked up on this great analogy by asking students how many of them had opened Friendster accounts. About two thirds raised a hand. I then asked how many still used them; one hand went up. I then asked how many had Facebook accounts. All hands went up, and stayed up when I asked about regular use. 

My student saw that Friendster showed the latent demand for social networking software, but that for a variety of reasons it wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Facebook’s enormous growth and popularity showed the demand for social networking software that got it right. It might be hard to identify, even in retrospect, what that ‘it’ is, but there’s no denying that people want whatever it is. 

His point was that we should be similarly patient and optimistic about Enterprise 2.0, and that rather than concentrating on current shortcomings we should be impressed that early efforts are succeeding at all. I think that’s a pretty sharp insight, and a great takeaway from the class. Do you agree?