Colonizing the Outer Rings

As I looked back over some recent blog posts and thought about some recent conversations, I realized that they’ve been pointing to a single broad conclusion. I think it’s time to state it explicitly instead of having it remain in the penumbra of the discussion around Enterprise 2.0.

Before doing this, I need to re-draw my E2.0 target picture, which I explained a while back: “The… figure below is an extremely simple and not-to-scale representation of the relative size of [four groups of people], from the perspective of our focal knowledge worker. The small core of people with whom she has strong ties is at the center, surrounded by her larger group of weakly-tied colleagues. Potential ties are in the next ring, and co-workers —  people with whom valuable ties do not and will not exist —  make up the outermost ring. My intuition is that for most knowledge workers the four circles in the figure are nested accurately  —  that the number of potential ties, for example, is greater than the number of weak ties —  even if their relative sizes are way off.” (This post explains the picture and its purpose in more detail.)

Enterprise 2.0 Rings

The conclusion I’ve arrived at recently is easy to state: Enterprise 2.0 is most valuable at the outer rings of the target.

I don’t mean to imply that emergent social software platforms (ESSPs) aren’t useful for strongly-tied colleagues (in other words, close collaborators). I’ve seen plenty of examples of dedicated teams making effective use of wikis, Sharepoint, and other forms of 2.0-style groupware. I get the impression, in fact, that at present ESSPs are most often deployed to support the work of people who are already strongly tied to one another.

I don’t think that this use case is bad, short-sighted, or uninteresting in any way. But I do think that it’s less interesting, and less valuable, than the deployment and use of ESSPs that span the outer rings of the picture above, where people are weakly tied or not yet connected at all.

I say this for two main reasons. First, prior to the arrival of ESSPs the IT toolkit available at the outer rings was both small and ineffective. Before the 2.0 era, what technology did we use to keep up to date with what our weakly-tied colleagues were doing, or to update them on what we were doing? How many of us sent out weekly emails to all of our ‘professonal acquaintances’ letting them know what we’d been up to?    How many of us would have read such emails from others?

And were there good digital tools to help us figure out who we should be working with, who could answer a question or solve a problem, or put hours back in our week? Throughout most of my professional life I figured such things out by asking my strong ties, who would consult their mental rolodexes and tell me if anyone came to mind. This technique worked sometimes and failed sometimes, but it certainly wasn’t technology-enabled.

Because of ESSPs like social networking software, microblogs (like Twitter), and a blogosphere that’s densely interlinked (and so navigable and searchable), the digital toolkit for the outer rings is no longer lousy. In fact, it’s now quite good. We can keep in touch with our weak ties, and find good potential ties — people we should be interacting with. And as I wrote earlier, prediction markets are great tools at the outermost ring, where people are strangers and will remain so. Prediction markets let strangers trade securities with each other, an activity that yields weirdly accurate forecasts of future events.

The second main reason for my conclusion is that outer-ring ESSPs bring substantial benefits, and ones that are difficult to achieve any other way. In other words, it’s not just that good outer-ring tools are new; it’s that they’re new and powerful.

Outer-ring ESSPs allow authoring, or writing for a broad yet unspecified audience. When knowledge workers author and link to each other, searchers can locate them and assess their knowledge and expertise. These same tools allow people to publicize not only what they know, but also what they don’t; seekers can use ESSPs to pose questions and let an undefined and arbitrarily large group of people see them. I’ve quoted Eric Raymond before that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” The new tools let people put their ‘work bugs’ in front of lots of eyeballs; if some of them belong to people who are informed and good-willed, solutions will be forthcoming.

ESSPs also let people build and maintain large social networks. An interesting possibility, discussed in my book, is that they might let users get past Dunbar’s number, the theoretical maximum number social group size. Dunbar’s number has been estimated at around 150 for people, yet many of us have more Facebook friends than that. It could be (but is by no means sure) that ESSPs let us keep up to date with more people than we could with our gray matter alone. A final demonstrated benefit of the E2.0 toolkit is collective intelligence, or the ability of crowds to come together and, with a bit of technology glue, generate good answers.

After a company deploys outer-ring ESSPs and acquires these capabilities, wouldn’t you imagine that it becomes significantly more productive, more efficient, and less plagued by waste and redundancy than it was before? I’d also imagine that it becomes more agile, responsive, smart, and innovative than was previously the case, but I realize that these are bolder claims.

One final thought experiment: take the same company, and imagine that it deploys ESSPs aimed only at facilitating the work of colleagues who are already strongly tied. Now how does your before-vs.-after comparison look?   Mine doesn’t look nearly as impressive; the company still achieves some real improvements, but they’re not in the same league as those realized when outer-ring ESSPs are in place.

Do you agree? Are you with me that the real benefits of E2.0 come when the outer rings are colonized by ESSPs, or do you believe something else?  Leave a comment, please, and let us know.