Something New Under the Sun?

In the Enterprise 2.0 presentation I’ve given a few times recently I present my bullseye model of E2.0’s benefits and stress that emergent social software platforms are valuable in different ways at each of the four rings of the bullseye —  strongly-tied groups of coworkers, weakly-tied ones, potential ties, and no ties. 

These days, after drawing the inner 3 rings of the bullseye but before discussing tools like social networking software (SNS) and a corporate blogosphere, I make two points. First, that weak ties are highly valuable, as is the process of converting a potential tie (either strong or weak) into an actual one. So anything that helps a person stay on top of their network of weak ties or convert potential ties should also be quite valuable.

Second, that prior to the 2.0 era (yes, that’s a silly phrase, but not a meaningless one) there were really no good technologies to help at the 2nd and 3rd rings of the bullseye. In other words, there were no effective digital tools for helping a knowledge worker stay on top of and/or exploit her networks of weak ties, or to indicate potentially valuable ties to her. I then go on to discuss the value of SNS for weak ties, and of a blogosphere for potential ones.

At some point this past week, though, I wondered if I was overstating the case. I wondered if in fact there were effective older technologies for weak and potential ties, ones that I had overlooked or forgotten about.

My students didn’t come up with many. I presented the  bullseye model to my MBA students this past semester and asked them what technologies, if any, were available at the second and third rings at the companies where they worked before heading off to business school. 

More than a few of them had worked as analysts at large consultancies and banks; they said that they used blast emails, listservs, and group instant messaging to ping their networks of loose ties with questions like"Has anyone sized the Eastern European 3G market?" or "how many public medical device manufacturers are there, and which of them are outperforming the market?"

They reported varying levels of success and satisfaction with this method, and also pointed out a few of its shortcomings. Emails are often perceived as intrusions and ignored, and instant messages are typically fleeting. More fundamentally, though, these are both only technologies for broadcasting what you don’t know, rather than what you do. Ideal tools for weak and potential ties would do both; they’d let people display their knowledge, experience, and expertise in a searchable form, and they’d allow people to ask questions of each other. 

Beyond email and IM, my students weren’t able to come up with other technologies for weak and potential ties (And is it worth even mentioning corporate newsletters, whether digital or paper? These ‘official’ publications have been part of most organizations I’ve worked in, and have been heartily ignored by most people.). They certainly brought up face-to-face methods like conferences, but we were largely left scratching our heads in class about pre-2.0 digital tools at the 2nd and 3rd rings of the bullseye. 

So I’m honestly wondering if I’m missing something, and I’d like to use this blog post to broadcast a question:

Prior to the advent of 2.0 tools like SNS, blogs, and wikis, did effective technologies exist for keeping up to date with a wide network of weak ties, or for finding potentially valuable ties? If so, what were they? How did they work? Were they home-grown or commercial? How heavily were they used, and by whom? 

Please leave a comment and let us know. I’d love some reassurance that I’m not kidding myself about the novelty of the Enterprise 2.0 toolkit for weak and potential ties.