A Defining Moment

by Andrew McAfee on August 27, 2009

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.

Paula Thornton August 27, 2009 at 11:14 am

Andy: I agree that it's 'not not' about technology. And as I always like to point out, we'd all be a lot better off if we understood and embraced the non-digital aspects of technology, especially as noted by Clayton Christensen “the processes by which an organization transforms labor, capital, materials, and information into products and services of greater value”. But we don't.

Due to the imperfections in language as a representation, we have to deal with common interpretations. The message “it's not about the technology” does not infer that the technology is not necessary — it suggests that it's not sufficient. In a reality where so many see and buy technologies as 'finished products', this mindset has to be overcome with a strong perspective. The common belief has to be challenged to start the conversation in earnest.

Yes, the digital technologies hold great potential. But they are 'lost' without the balance of all the components that make a sound technology, by Christensen's definition. Because so few hold this understanding, anyone who is championing core principles must also champion the details of the broader definition of technology, else the story is only partially true. You speak of technology and then you specifically mention software. While software is a technology, not all technology is software. Even if we were to embrace, as you suggest, the technological aspects of Enterprise 2.0, software itself is a small part of it.

“A definition is not a discussion”. I would guess you're suggesting that a definition is a placeholder, around which discussion can ensue (I believe the 'contrarians' are suggesting they're not seeing a venue for such discussion). The essence of all things 2.0 is the recognition that 'facts' are contextual. The purpose of the flexibility that is borne of 2.0 is to accommodate growth and ever-changing conditions that are the reality of business.

Ever-changing has always been part of the business landscape, the difference now is the rate of change — which is forcing us to move away from the side of the Design Thinking continuum where lives “binary code” and “algorithms”, more toward “heuristics” and “mystery”. While there will be conditions for which all will be relevant, the focus has to be more in the tradeoffs between the heuristic and the algorithm. We are constantly learning and seeing things from different perspectives. A definition that is 'locked down' would be an embracing of 'binary code'. That's just not part of a 2.0 reality which embraces the need to facilitate the dynamic middle — providing the ability to harness the crest of the wave, capitalizing on kinetic energy (energy in motion) and order for free…the birthplace of emergence.

We offer gratitude and respect for your trailblazing this category. As well I offer as evidence other trailblazers: John Zachman originally only had 3 categories in his now 6 category Enterprise Architecture Framework (the other three came from the 'masses'); Bill Inmon did not embrace data marts as part of data warehousing. Both evolved.

I look forward to the continued growth in our collective understanding of this topic as we seek to leverage its potential and improve the means by which we work together.

Tom Graves August 28, 2009 at 3:15 am

I will admit I’m a bit disappointed by the above – you’ve clearly not bothered to consider any of the points made by myself or Oscar Berg.

A ‘term-hijack’ ( see “The dangers of ‘term-hijack'”, http://weblog.tomgraves.org/index.php/2009/08/19/term-hijack/ ) occurs when an existing term is re-used in such a way that a subset of the context is presented as if it’s the whole of the context, and thence prevents any other view of or perspective into the whole. For ‘Enterprise 2.0′, Paula Thornton explains the concerns well in her comment: yes, the IT components are relevant, but they are by no means sufficient in themselves. As will be clear from exploration of any of the many intersecting domains such as security-architecture, service-oriented architecture or narrative-knowledge, many of the ‘social software’ elements are technology-agnostic relative to the means of implementation, and in many contexts may function in the mode implied by the ‘Enterprise 2.0′ definition without any IT at all. In those contexts, the ‘social software’ resides in the people, not the technology.

Despite your assertions above, the fact remains that ‘people’ still exists nowhere in the term ‘social software'; you vaguely imply people must be involved somewhere because it’s ‘social’, but that’s about it. And since ‘social’ is the adjective, the emphasis is clearly on the ‘software’ component, not the ‘social’. So you haven’t actually addressed any of the critique at all: instead, you’ve merely dismissed our concerns with put-down terms such as ‘strange statements’ or ‘flawed arguments’. You’ve not identified any of the ‘flaws’ you purport to see in our concerns, nor have you changed anything of substance at all in your definition. So we’re left to suspect that the arguments seem strange to you primarily because you’ve failed to explore any of the broader social picture; and that our arguments seem ‘flawed’ to you for exactly the same reason.

Our real complaint, I suppose, is that, like so many IT-centric buzzwords before it, the definition of ‘Enterprise 2.0′ is essentially circular, self-referential and self-serving, and fails to connect with a real world in which people must always take preference over a single short-term software fad. And that issue you have still not addressed at all.

If you are to re-use terms such as ‘enterprise’ and ‘2.0’, it’s essential to be aware of the consequences of doing so, especially if that re-use would constrain the scope. Consider, for example, the FEAF definition of ‘enterprise’, building upon IEEE-1471: “an organisation or cross-functional entity supporting a defined business scope and mission … includes interdependent resources – people, organisations and technology – who must coordinate their functions and share resources in support of a common mission or set of related missions”. By comparison with that definition, the usage of ‘enterprise’ in the ‘Enterprise 2.0′ definition is so constrained as to be absurd – and also blocks the view of the broader context. Much the same applies to the re-use of Tim O’Reilly’s original ‘Web 2.0′ definition: the usage in the ‘Enterprise 2.0′ definition again actively shuts out the human dimension, instead focussing solely on the IT software.

The long-term result of the IT-centric ‘Enterprise 2.0′ definition has been that the real possibilities of a ‘Web 2.0′-style rethink of the way enterprises work has been drowned out in a flood of marketing hype for every IT-application with the remotest possibility of being used in a supposedly ‘social’ manner. Most of the social, psychological, ethnographic and other complexities have been ignored in yet another classic ‘deus ex machina’ delusion, repeating exactly the same mistakes that caused the failures of BPR, ERP, CRM and so many other IT-driven fads. A true ‘enterprise 2.0′ is becoming essential for enterprise survival: yet this specific ‘Enterprise 2.0′ definition actively _prevents_ us from getting there, and you seem – as above – to be resolutely committed to refusing that fact. That to me is the real tragedy here.

That you may claim to be the originator of the ‘Enterprise 2.0′ term does not absolve you from these responsibilities – exactly the opposite, in fact. It would help us all if you started to face those responsibilities, rather than arbitrarily dismissing them as above.

Disappointed indeed – and with very good reason. You can do much better than this: please do?

Jeannot Muller August 28, 2009 at 5:42 am

I'm fine with the definition in principle. It might be today's issue of printing books, which – unless it is an ebook – makes evolution only accessible to a larger audience after some delays (Version 2.0 of the book 😉 ). A definition itself is always a starting point, which can and should be reviewed later.

The concept of “2.0” embeds at my perception the risk of a consecutive future numbering, similar to Web 2.0. My business(!) experience is that people with IT background link such kind of numbering to their experiences with software development in the last 2 decades and therefore don't trust anything below version 3.x.
A lot of the big brands in the Software Industry showed that their products became firstly mature above release 2.0. The Microsoft Windows Operating Systems is one example, it's true for SAP products, MS Internet Explorer etc. I know that it's only partially true for Firefox and newer open source developments for instance, but again I talk about discussions I have with business(!) partners, CxOs for instance, who have a profound aversion against any half-baked solution and everything below the magic 3 is half-baked for our generation. What to answer if they ask what Enterprise 3.0 will be all about.
But what's in a name? By the end of the day this is a matter of taste, but I only wanted to drop you my thoughts why I prefer a proper name without any numbering.

However, I'm personally missing in the definition the description if Enterprise 2.0 is intrinsic, extrinsic or both (in both aspects from the toolsets needed and secondly – most importantly – from its coverage and area of influence). Is twitter.com E2.0, or is yammer.com E2.0 or do we need both? At my perception there is no right or wrong to this.

A marketing department needs most probably mainly tools like twitter.com, facebook.com etc. for their public reach outs, but project management might benefit from the quick messages in a safe and secure environment of yammer.com and similar, and program/product management might benefit from the brainstorming tweets in such a secure encapsulated internal environment. On the other hand why should product managers not already benefit from direct feedback from potential future customers? Will future employees (the e-generation) work with the limited tool-set we offer internally, or will they not be disappointed (not to say frustrated) if they can’t use the same tools for mind-mapping, polls, task handling, etc. as they use at home or in private life? Why should they follow a discussion on a corporate intranet or on a sharepoint, if they are used to facebook.com or linkedin.com groups?
I'm aware that you're trying to reflect this in your first phrase: “Enterprise 2.0 is the use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers.” by emphasizing on the “or”, but what if we would say “and”?
I agree with you that organizational changes should not be part of this definition, and giving the child a name is your legitimate right as the “father” of your definition, but in my case working for a company with over 450K employees and coverage of >200 countries your definition remains right even if I would add that the coverage is intrinsic only, and hence skipping the “or” and everything behind it.
We face more and more the situation that the old boundaries of what an internal communication is all about and what could and should be communicated externally are getting to be fuzzy. Often people are not even conscious that in-between the lines they are “communicating” about internal discussions publicly (this comment is one proof).

I personally think that information flow can't be stopped (but has to be somehow controlled through a set of organizational rules) and consequently that it will make sense to extend the definition to a public scope. However especially in large companies with large audiences the benefits could already be realized by a limitation on a pure intrinsic scope, however how should it then reflect those aspects where an interaction with the public is becoming mandatory (e.g. sales department, public relations, etc.)

I'm focusing on this clarification as I do see exactly the boundary between the social media with public visibility and those with limitation within a company is crucial, key to success but difficult and it will be mandatory in future to manage these boundaries and borders of internal and external audiences and the respective information flow.

As we need to control to a reasonable extend the information flow in-/out-side the company a clear definition of what Enterprise 2.0 really is all about is somehow a must to get the same understanding by all parties involved.
I show today a tendency that it might be better to define the scope as such that this particular challenge is somehow included.

What are your thoughts on this or did I even miss the point?


Jeannot Muller

Bertrand Duperrin August 30, 2009 at 3:04 pm

E2.0 means and aims at so many thing that your new definition seems to be closer to reality : it's about using socia media but also about taking into account many corporate and cultural stakes and issues.

Discussing something as protean as E2.0, I think me need more a direction than a strict definition (btw isn't it about making companies less similar ?). I tried myself to find a comprehensive definition two years ago and the result I blogged was a very long sentence that was not usable as such (IMHO). But there was on thing that coincides with you new one : it started with “it's a set of means that”… Maybe that's what matter and what we all agree on : technology alone is not enough, it's a sytem or a “set of means”.

Hank Mobley September 1, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Not long ago i sat down to write an conclusion of what defines E2.0 for a presentation at my university and I destilled your defination, the interpretations of Dion Hinchcliffe, plus the original Web 2.0 Meme Map from Tim O'Reilly and added an article of Patricio Robles (http://econsultancy.com/blog/3936-keeping-socia…).
I finally could understand and interprete the meanings of E2.0 when I clustered the bits around the core which I borrowed from Robles in an O'Reilly style. Imho E2.0 is technology that gathers around a social core, because enterprises are social networks. In an enterprise network however there is more communication between groups happening than on social networks, where the communication is between individuals. The topics are different, the communication patterns are similar though.
If s.o. is interested, my meme map is under an educational CC-Licence and can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/bluenote84149/3655

ProfySpace September 2, 2009 at 10:01 am

By @amcafee Enterprise 2.0 definition, it’s just technique but not tool(s). I think such way leads to big confusion for businesses

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