Enterprise 2.0 is a Crock: Discuss

Always-opinionated blogger Dennis Howlett put up a post at ZDNet last week titled “Enterprise 2.0: What a Crock.” I don’t agree, but I do commend Howlett for making a couple important points and raising a question that really matters.

One of his important points, to my eyes, is that:

“Like it or not, large enterprises – the big name brands – have to work in structures and hierarchies that most E2.0 mavens ridicule but can’t come up with alternatives that make any sort of corporate sense.”

I’d use the word ‘some’ instead of ‘most,’ but I applaud Howlett for pointing out that certain E2.0 enthusiasts adopt the language of revolutionaries. They rail against the old corporate order and proclaim that they’re working for its downfall. They portray hierarchy, standardization, and management as enemies of innovation, creativity, and value creation. And they maintain that E2.0 is an unstoppable force that will only gain power as Millennials enter the workforce and that resistance to it is, ultimately, futile.

All of which is both unhelpful and wrong. It’s unhelpful because such rhetoric has the effect of increasing resistance to E2.0 among people who really need to be on board. If you’re a manager within a stable hierarchy and you get wind of a movement that aims to eliminate management and hierarchy (and stability!), you’re almost certainly going to oppose it.

And it’s wrong because it’s, well, wrong. On two counts. First, management, hierarchy, routine, and bureaucracy have their faults, but none of them qualify as mala in se – things that are bad in and of themselves. Organizations should probably have less of each of them rather than more, but that doesn’t mean that they should have none.

Second, E2.0 is not an unstoppable force. All a company has to do is wipe ESSPs off its servers and block them at the firewall, and no Enterprise 2.0 will take place. And will that shortsightedness drive the company out of business in six months or a year? Almost certainly not.

I yield to few people in my belief in the power of emergent social software platforms, but they’re not the only game in town for achieving desirable business outcomes. I believe that over time companies that don’t use them will fall behind those that do, but how far behind, and over what time frame? Not that far, that fast.

Howlett’s other great point is that:

“[Organizations are] made up of a myriad of design, make and buy people who -quite frankly – don’t give a damn about the ‘emergent nature‘ of enterprise.  To most of those people, the talk is mostly noise they don’t need. They just want to get things done with whatever the best tech they can get their hands on at reasonable price.”

That’s so nicely put I’m not going to add anything except “hear, hear.” But I will revisit this quote later.

Howlett ends the post with his question-that-really-matters: “Can someone explain to me the problem Enterprise 2.0 is trying to solve?” I’ll give it a shot.

Here’s a set of business problems that are hopefully not too abstract or trivial, and ESSP-based solutions to them. They’re based on my research, casewriting, reading, and personal experience. This list is nowhere near exhaustive; it just contains the first few examples that came to mind.

Problem: How can we bring new hires up to speed as quickly as possible so that they become effective employees and stop bugging people with all their questions?

Use a wiki. Office supply company VistaPrint initiated a wiki in an attempt to capture what a new engineering hire needed to know. Because this knowledge base changed so quickly, the company felt that any paper-based solution would quickly become obsolete. Within 18 months the wiki grew to contain over 11,000 pages placed into 600 categories, all of them generated by employees themselves rather than a professional knowledge management staff. It became a dynamic and up-to-date repository of the company’s engineering knowledge.

Problem: How can we accurately forecast how many units we’re going to sell?

Use a prediction market. As Claire Cain Miller wrote in the New York Times Bits blog: “At a media company with a new product to ship, 1,200 employees predicted a ship date and sales figures that resulted in 61 percent less error than executives’ previous prediction, according to [prediction market vendor] Crowdcast. A pharmaceutical company asked a panel of scientists and doctors to predict regulatory decisions and new drug sales using Crowdcast, and they were more accurate than the company’s original prediction 86 percent of the time” The former example is especially impressive because the market demonstrated its ability to accurately foretell sales of a new video game, which are notoriously hard to anticipate. See these posts for more on prediction markets.

Problem: Who can solve this scientific problem that’s got us stumped?

Post it to Innocentive, an Eli Lilly spinoff and clearinghouse for scientific problems and problem solvers. Research groups within large organizations use Innocentive to post descriptions of problems they’ve not been able to solve. These problems are anonymized, assigned a solution value of between $2,000 and $105,000, then made available over the Web to the more than 80,000 independent scientists from over 150 countries who have an account with Innocentive. A 2007 study by Karim Lakhani, Lars Po Jeppesen, Peter Lohse, and Jill Panetta, found that almost 30% of 166 problems posted to Innocentive were solved.

Howlett asks “…can you imagine inserting a new process to pharma without FDA sanction? It would cause a hissy fit in Washington and rightly so. There is a reason why processes exist to validate what pharma wants to do. Can community oil those wheels?  Perhaps but I’ve not seen the proofs to suggest that is a long term win.” Innocentive has inserted a new process into pharmaceutical R&D, and I don’t think the clearinghouse has asked for or received FDA approval. Is it a proven long term win yet? No, but it has demonstrated some clear value.

Problem: How can we serve our customers better and more cheaply?

Set up an online community and let people help each other. As I wrote a while back, “an April 25 article by Steve Lohr in the New York Times that this is exactly what’s happening at Verizon. The article profiles Texan retiree Justin McMurry, who spends up to 20 hours per week at the community forums section of the company’s website, “supplying answers online to customer questions about technical matters like how to set up an Internet home network or how to program a new high-definition television.”

He’s not the only person exhibiting this strange new form of corporate altruism; Verizon’s director of e-commerce says that Mr. McMurry and his fellow volunteer ’super-users’ answer thousands of questions that would otherwise go unanswered (thus decreasing customer satisfaction) or take up an employee’s time (and thus cost Verizon). Discussions between customers and super-users also “provide customer ideas for improvements in hardware and software for the company’s fiber optic service, as well as a large, growing and searchable knowledge base online.”

Plenty of other companies, including SAP, Intuit and Dell, have had similar experiences. Howlett writes that “Business wants to find the most efficient ways of satisfying customers – and if you think that’s going to come from some new fangled community then think again.” Real world examples indicate that another round of rethinking might be in order.

Problem: Who can help me navigate through this huge company to find the document / information / resource / person / answer I’m looking for?

Set up discussion boards. Euan Semple wrote a great post about how he solved the above problem at the BBC:

“I can so well remember the frustration when managers would say “I can never find anything on the intranet”… I came to the conclusion that corporate intranet search was pretty much pointless. Not enough people created linky content so Google was out. Most stuff was static documents stored in “knowledge coffins” (hat tip to PWC for the terminology) that relied too heavily on structure, determined by someone else and without the benefit of context and lastly, with a few rare exceptions, once you found the document it was likely to be badly written, barely relevant and out of date!

… I came to believe that what people really wanted was to find someone who knew what they were talking about. Even if that “knew what they were talking about” meant knowing which document to read, why and where it was to be found. So what we did was start building online social spaces like forums, blogs and wikis in which highly contextual, subjective, complex patterns and information could start to surface about anything and everything in the business that was interesting and worth writing about.

The result was that when someone said on our forums “I need to find the official documentation on x because I am about to do y” they were usually rewarded, and very quickly, with multiple answers along the lines of “Well I found this document answered my questions because ….. ” pointing them at the documentation. Indeed increasingly the source they were directed to was a blog or a wiki containing up to date, contextualized information.

Having context in the question, context in the answer and the collective memory of your corporate meatspace, empowered by the mighty hyper-link, in between is hard to beat.”

Problem: How can we connect the dots among all the pieces of potentially relevant information about terrorist attacks and other intelligence issues?

Pursue Enterprise 2.0. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which highlighted poor information sharing among America’s sixteen federal intelligence agencies, ESSPs were deployed across all of them, including the CIA, FBI, NSA, and DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency). An internal report concluded that these tools, which include blogs and the Intellipedia wiki, are “already impacting the work practices of analysts.  In addition, [they are] challenging deeply held norms about controlling the flow of information between individuals and across organizational boundaries.”

Comments I received from analysts across the intelligence community (IC) reinforced this viewpoint:

From a DIA analyst: “These tools have immensely improved my ability to interact with people that I would never have met otherwise… Enterprise 2.0 tools have helped considerably in exposing new information, new projects, and bringing new thought leaders . . . to the forefront. People that would never have been visible before now have a voice. . . .”

From an NSA analyst: “Before Intellipedia, contacting other agencies was done cautiously, and only through official channels. There was no casual contact, and little opportunity to develop professional acquaintances—outside of rare [temporary duty] opportunities, or large conferences on broad topics… After nearly two years of involvement with Intellipedia, however, this has changed. Using Intellipedia has become part of my work process, and I have made connections with a variety of analysts outside the IC. None of the changes in my practices would have been possible without the software tools… I don’t know everything. But I do know who I can go to when I need to find something out.

From an NSA engineer: “ . . . there’s now a place I can go for answers as opposed to data. In addition, using that data and all the links to people associated with that data, I can find people who are interested in helping me understand the subject matter. Since I’ve been involved in Web 2.0 activities, I have met many new people throughout the IC. They are a great resource for me as I continue my career. Their helpful attitude makes me want to help them (and others) in return.”

From a DIA scientist: “IC blogs allow me to connect to people that I would not otherwise know about. I can see what they are working on, and use it to make a real introduction.

From a CIA analyst: “The first aspect that comes to mind when I contemplate how these tools have improved my ability to do my job is the ease of shar[ing] ideas and working collaboratively with intelligence professionals around the world . . . I am actively involved in an early stage project that would be impossible without these tools. The ability to link information and people together, as wikis and blogs do, makes possible an activity that I truly believe will transform our Community. The tools fundamentally altered the course of this project.”

A few paragraphs back, I cited with approval Howlett’s contention that workers care first and foremost about getting their jobs done. But I disagree when he writes: “[people] want to get things done with whatever the best tech they can get their hands on at reasonable price. That doesn’t mean some wiki, blog or whatnot.” The example of the US IC shows that in fact it can mean exactly some wiki, blog, or ESSP whatnot.

Problem: Is Andrew’s last name spelled McAfee or MacAfee?

Use Google to get it right, Dennis. It only takes a couple seconds.

If you know of other great E2.0-related problem and answer pairs, please tell us about them or point us to them via a comment to this post. I’d love to get a collection of examples that demonstrate to the open-minded that while Enterprise 2.0 contains a lot, it’s not a crock.