A Defining Moment

I heard via Twitter a little while ago that some people were taking issue with my definition of Enterprise 2.0, and finally got around to checking out the posts in question. The first one appears to be “Annoyed at Enterprise 2.0,” by Tom Graves, which led to “Why McAfee’s definition of Enterprise 2.0 is flawed” by Oscar Berg and then the more charitably titled “Is McAfee’s definition of Enterprise 2.0 flawed?” by James Dellow.

In them I found a mixture of strange statements, flawed arguments, minor quibbles, and points that one could agree or disagree with. I’m tempted to deal only with those points and ignore the rest, but like many other people who traffic in ideas I get upset when my ideas get mangled and mistreated. So let’s take the posts in order.

Graves gives the definition I posted in May of 2006:

Enterprise 2.0 is the use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers.

Social software enables people to rendezvous, connect or collaborate through computer-mediated communication and to form online communities. (Wikipedia’s definition).

Platforms are digital environments in which contributions and interactions are globally visible and persistent over time.

Emergent means that the software is freeform, and that it contains mechanisms to let the patterns and structure inherent in people’s interactions become visible over time.

Freeform means that the software is most or all of the following:

  • Optional
  • Free of up-front workflow
  • Egalitarian, or indifferent to formal organizational identities
  • Accepting of many types of data

He then immediately says “People are not even mentioned in this definition. Neither is the enterprise…” Well, the word “people” occurs in the definition of “social software,” which is the second sentence in the above quote and part of my sub-definitions for E2.0. My main, one-sentence definition includes the people-ish “social.” And I used the plural of “company” instead of “enterprise” in this definition because of a basic rule of good lexicography: the definition of a word should not contain the word itself.

Graves then asserts that this definition is “worse than meaningless” because “by ‘hijacking’ what would otherwise be a meaningful term, it actively blocks us from the possibility of meaningful discussion about the nature of the enterprise within which such software might be used.”

Two points here. First, I was the first to write extensively on Enterprise 2.0 (the only prior close term I could find was “Enterprise2.0” in a single February 2006 blog post by Stuart Eccles) and the first to define it. I can’t hijack something that I started; the verb in that context is, to use Graves’s phrase, worse than meaningless. It can be hijacked from me, but not by me. I gather that Graves didn’t take the time to familiarize himself with the history of the term.

Second, I find it hard to believe that my definition “blocks us from the possibility of meaningful discussion about the nature of the enterprise.” I offer a definition of a phenomenon, and as a result discussions about organizations are no longer possible? Talk about unintended consequences! I just don’t know what to do with rhetoric like that, so I’ll stop trying to engage with it and move on to the next post.

Berg says that my “technology-centric definition… is missing what made the social web the social web – the people, not the technology.” I’ve asserted from the get-go that it’s the combination of the people and some novel technology that yielded Web 2.0 (a term I like better than “the social web”) and Enterprise 2.0. People have always been around on the Web and in the enterprise, and they’ve always wanted to find each other, interact, and collaborate.

The 2.0 era came about because the technology toolkit available to help them do these things took a great leap forward with the appearance of emergent social software platforms (ESSPs. This is another term I coined, so please don’t accuse me of hijacking it). I’ve written about their genesis here, here, and in my book.

The Web has changed and improved a lot over the past few years, and not because people suddenly became important. It changed because its constituent technologies became skewed much more heavily toward ESSPs. Similarly, Enterprise 2.0 is not taking place because organizations have recently woken up to the fact that their people are important. Trust me, there has been no shortage of voices telling them so over the past eighty years or so. It’s taking place because the digital tools that enterprises can give to their people have improved. So yes, my definition is technology-centric. This is because while some things are not about the technology, others are not not about the technology, and Enterprise 2.0 is one of them.

Dellow writes that “ultimately my point here is that while McAfee warned us about this challenge [of organizational change], it wasn’t part of his definition.” This is true, and appropriate. A definition is not a discussion; it’s “a concise explanation of the meaning of a word or phrase or symbol.” Once we define a phenomenon of interest, then we can start talking about its implications, manifestations, challenges, etc., but these should not be part of the definition itself.

I just looked up the definitions of curveball, fastball, slider, and knuckleball, and none of them told me which were the most challenging to hit or throw; they just concisely explained the pitch. My definition of Enterprise 2.0 is an attempt to do the same for a technology-enabled organizational phenomenon. It’s a starting point for valuable discussions about this phenomenon, not a container for them.

For what it’s worth, I’ve modified my definition just a bit to include the why of E2.0. In my book and a Harvard Business Review article that will appear in November, I say that “ Enterprise 2.0 is the use of emergent social software platforms by organizations in pursuit of their goals.” I hope it’s clear enough, and helpful to you.