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Phil Wainewright

Don't Soft Pedal the Enterprise 2.0 Message

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I have to confess I was both intrigued and troubled by Andrew McAfee's keynote at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in San Francisco two weeks ago. I sympathized too, since McAfee carries a huge burden on his shoulders as the creator and original definer of the term Enterprise 2.0. And yet I listened to him admonishing his followers not to declare war on the enterprise, not to over-emphasize the social aspects of this software, and I began to wonder whether he wasn't leading his cavalry on a forlorn charge into the valley of disillusion that lies directly ahead for social software suites, according to Gartner's 2009 hype cycle report.

While I accept his reservations about applying the word social to this technology — "It's technically accurate, [but] I have rarely come across a word that has more negative connotations to managers in enterprise organizations," he said — I would have preferred him to come out fighting with a redefinition of the word rather than lamely accepting its characterization as redolent of the late-1960s hippy movement (read a summary here). If there is any meaning to the term Enterprise 2.0, it is to speak of a reshaping of the enterprise into a more knowledge-enabled, Web-connected, collaboration-driven form of organization that was simply not possible in the industrial era. In an earlier keynote the same morning, nGenera's Tammy Erickson persuasively set out this context and many of the challenges it provokes for enterprise management today (main points summarized here by Ben Kepes).

At the core of the changes I believe we're witnessing in computing today is the inclusion of a long-overlooked human dimension. In the industrial era, corporations built huge data processing systems that sought to exclude humans as much as possible because they are less reliable than machines at inputting data and too slow at processing algorithms. That was fine for easily repeatable processes (to use Sig Rinde's adaptation of the ERP acronym) but you can't erase the human dimension out of the enterprise altogether. Ultimately, it's the people that assess risks, do deals, manage change, take decisions and earn the rewards of success (or carry the can for failure). Corporate management and business itself are essentially social activities in that they depend on interactions between people. That's why computing has to evolve to become social — to become people-centric instead of merely machine-centric.

We need to redefine the word social so that it's no longer perceived as the antithesis of business and instead acknowledge the degree to which organizations rely on human interaction to achieve their objectives. Enterprise 2.0 is technology that seeks to eliminate many of the inefficiencies that get in the way of productive interaction and collaboration, automating social processes in the same way that earlier generations of computing automated data processing. Yes, it needs to focus clearly on business impact, value and return on investment. But it's not a crock and it's not bogus.

We must also acknowledge that enterprises need to change many of the management structures and cultures we live with today that are still hangovers from the industrial era. The notion that a corporation should function like a perfect machine, cleansed of human frailty and error, is one that permeates many prevalent assumptions in management and governance. Instead of trying to erase and deny the reliance on people, let's give due credit to the role of human ingenuity and teamwork in the success of an organization. Enterprise 2.0 is a well-chosen term precisely because it deliberately conveys the need for a new style of enterprise empowered by software automation that focuses on the human dimension of business structures and organization.

Enterprise 2.0 is all about adding a new layer of people-centric computing on top of our existing data-centric computing infrastructure. This allows organizations to evolve from existing twentieth-century legacy structures into enterprises fit for a new, Web-connected era. The enterprise is not dead but let's not soft-pedal the message that an emerging class of Web-based, collaborative, socially-aware software is enabling a new generation of enterprise to come alive.

PS: Don't miss Dion Hinchcliffe and I debate Enterprise 2.0 in our upcoming roundtable webinar December 10th.

1 Comment

Phil, I was cheering you on and praising your comments...all the way up until the end when you tried to differentiate a data focus from a people focus. That's when your position fell apart.

While I transitioned from a data-focused career to a more people-focused one, it was not because of your position. It's because companies were not willing do data right either. As well, my parting 'words of wisdom' to recent people-focused design colleagues was: learn to leverage the power of the data.

This isn't an "either, or", it's a "both". The REAL issues are DESIGN and ARCHITECTURE. Technology floors are largely devoid of either resources. Even today among many 2.0-focused technology vendors, they lack the same -- I can readily find the evidences which suggest same. Each time when I inquire as to the resources they're engaging, the evidences prove the suspicions.

What we have here is a failure to diversify.

[Such design issues are exemplified even in the UI of your blog tool where the buttons "Preview", "Submit" and "Cancel" are all lined up together and given equal weight.]

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

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