I Know It When I See It

More and more often these days I get asked “Does [offering X] from [vendor Y] qualify as an Enterprise 2.0 product?” Established vendors of collaboration software are modifying their offerings and repositioning them as social software platforms that have all the features and functions necessary to support the new modes of interacting and getting work done. Smaller companies and startups often say that the established vendors “just don’t get it” and that the new features they’ve incorporated —  blogs, wikis, discussion forums, tags, etc. —  are just windowdressing on products that are still essentially geared for Collaboration 1.0.

So who’s right?  Whose products at present come closest to enabling Web 2.0-style collaboration and interaction in enterprise environments? Honestly, I have no idea. It would be a huge amount of work just to learn about all the vendors and their offerings, let alone to evaluate them. And evaluating them “fresh out of the box” wouldn’t be that relevant anyway; collaboration software usually gets highly configured and tailored by companies before it’s turned on, with only some features activated and only some of those highlighted. One company, for example, might want its employees to be able to blog, while another wants no such thing.

Because of these facts I usually dodge questions about specific vendors and their offerings, and instead answer how I’d look at any particular deployment of collaboration software to see if it met my definition of Enterprise 2.0.

I find this pretty easy to do. I check to see if the environment meets three criteria: Is it freeform?  How frictionless is contribution? And is it emergent? To put some flesh on each of these terms…

Freeform means that the technology does not in any meaningful way impose, hardwire, or make and enforce assumptions about
– Workflows
– Roles
– Privileges
– Content
– Decision right allocations
Instead, people come together as equals within the environment created by technology, and do pretty much whatever they want.

I want to stress one more time that technologies that are not freeform are not bad or shortsighted or somehow deficient. If I were in charge of a retailer, for example, I’d want an ERP-ish system that my customer service reps used to take orders from customers, then send them to the warehouse for fulfillment and also to accounts payable. I’d want that system to have a standard order-to-ship workflow that was very hard to deviate from. I would NOT want this system to consider all employees to be equal, to assign them all to the same roles, or to give them equal privileges or decision rights. Finally, I’d want it to never accept a ZIP code that contained letters.

In addition to this system, though, I’d also certainly want to have one or more completely freeform digital platforms in which employees and other constituencies could come together as equals to decide what topics were important for the company, and how to attack them. My experience is that over time people place themselves into roles within these platforms (As USC’s Ann Majchrzak and her colleagues found in a study of corporate wiki users), but the important point is that they’re not assigned into roles up front, or by any external party.

Frictionless means that users perceive it to be easy to participate in the platform, and can do so with very little time or effort. One measure of friction is the total time required between having an idea for a contribution (while sitting in front of the computer, carrying the iPhone, etc.) and the appearance of that contribution on the platform.

Sign-ins, navigation through many web pages, and clunky user interfaces are all perceived as hurdles by a platform’s potential users, and increase friction. So does the need to massage a contribution like a blog post to look like it wasn’t put together by a complete hack. I can already tell, for example, that I’m going to post to this version of my blog more often than I did when it was hosted under the hbs.edu domain name and used a different and clunkier interface for posting. I felt like I had to tweak each entry for a long time to make it look OK, and it was a disincentive to post.

Tweetdeck, on the other hand, makes contribution to Twitter pretty frictionless. It sits on my desktop as a separate client, and I zip over to it whenever I have an idea. It’s quick and painless to send a standard tweet, a reply, a direct message, or a retweet, and to shorten and include a URL. With Tweetdeck I can convince myself to take a timeout from my deep academic thinking (coughcough) more often because each timeout is so short —  literally just a matter of seconds.

Emergent is both most intuitive of these three terms and the hardest to pin down. It really does bring to mind Justice Potter Stewart‘s famous yet unhelpful definition of obscenity “I know it when I see it.” My best-effort definition of the phenomenon is the appearance over time within a system of higher-level patterns or structure arising from large numbers of unplanned and undirected low-level interactions.

I wrote about the mechanisms of online emergence here and here; they include linking, tagging, friending (as on Facebook and LinkedIn), and following (as on Twitter). These are all activities that help patterns and structure appear, and that let the cream of the content rise to the top for all platform members, no matter how they define what the cream is.

Without these mechanisms, online content becomes less useful —  less easy to navigate, consume, and analyze — as it accumulates. With these mechanisms in place, just the opposite happens; the platform exhibits increasing returns to scale, and becomes more valuable as it grows.

The Web as a whole, and especially the Web 2.0 portions of it, is wondrously freeform, frictionless, and emergent. It stands as our clearest example of the kinds of energy and benefit that can be unleashed by the new technologies of interaction, and the communities that form on top of them. Some specific sub-segments of the Web like Facebook and especially Twitter are almost perfectly freeform and frictionless, but are less able to foster all forms of emergence. As I wrote here and here, it’s hard for me to use them to separate signal from noise and let the ‘best’ content rise to the top.

Too many corporate collaboration environments that I’ve observed, in contrast, come up short on the frictionless and freeform criteria. They make it far too difficult for prospective users to contribute, and they persist in slotting people into pre-assigned roles based largely on the formal org chart. In many cases they also impede emergence by having many small and mutually inaccessible environments, instead of one big one. The tendency to build walled gardens is evidently a deep-seated one, and one that should be questioned far more often than is currently the case.

Do these three criteria —  freeform, frictionless, and emergent — make sense to you and resonate with what you’ve seen and learned about the new technology-facilitated modes of collaboration? Am I leaving out any critical properties of effective technologies for supporting Enterprise 2.0? Do you agree that an enterprise’s chances of success rise significantly if it creates digital environments that have all three? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.