On June 18, 2007, at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston, Andrew McAfee, who coined the term in 2006, debated the merits of Enterprise 2.0 with Tom Davenport. Jason Rubin and Gil Press revisited the debate with them a year later at Tom’s office in Babson College.
When people talk about Enterprise 2.0, are they all talking about the same thing?
Andy McAfee: One of the things I tried to do early on was nail down what I hoped would be a tight definition for Enterprise 2.0. Other people are trying to use the same phrase to mean everything interesting that’s happening with IT. For me, Enterprise 2.0 represents the use of emergent social software platforms. Here’s what I mean. If I send Tom an e-mail, you don’t know about it and you can’t access its contents; it doesn’t add up to anything valuable at the enterprise level. A platform, on the other hand, is a digital environment where the content persists and grows over time, and can be consulted by the rest of the organization. Social means that the information is contributed by people as opposed to being generated automatically. And emergent implies that these systems are trying hard to not dictate structure or workflow so users experience it as being fairly close to a blank slate, but the structure does appear over time.
Tom Davenport: Well, I guess the only real difference I have regarding definition is the question of whether this is all completely new or just part of a continuum. There have always been tools with which to create, share, and store information. There are certainly more now, and it’s easier to do it now, so to me, it’s a matter of degree and not a matter of difference. I’m interested in emergence, too, and there are certainly some organizational information environments that should be managed in an emergent way. But there also are information environments that need curation and editing.
What is the potential of these technologies to change organizations?
Tom: I’ve always felt that Andy was pretty responsible as far as talking about how this is going to transform organizations. But there are people who are overstating the impact of these technologies, saying that social networks, by themselves, can build better customer relationships, increase business opportunities, transform service delivery, flatten silos, and on and on. I find these “techno-utopians” and their sweeping statements very troubling. I’m not saying not to add social networks to your portfolio, but don’t think that they’re a panacea for whatever information challenges your organization is facing.
Andy: I’m just old enough to remember the first wave of the Internet and the hype that accompanied that. I remember going to conferences and presentations where people would put up things like Porter’s Five Forces diagram and say, “This doesn’t apply anymore. All these rules are off.” That’s just not true. The only technologies that are powerful enough to get rid of those kinds of existing structures are nuclear weapons. Still, I am a little more bullish than Tom on the ability of some new technologies to effect operational changes even without an accompanying organizational push from the top.
How can an organization be sure its Enterprise 2.0 deployments are creating value rather than just providing employees with a virtual sandbox to play in?
Andy: I was at a conference with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and I asked him if he was an inclusionist or a deletionist. And he did a brilliant job of answering the question. He said, “I’m an eventualist, and I think that eventually the Wikipedia community is going to get these kinds of issues right.” I think that applies to Enterprise 2.0 deployments as well, and I appreciate that, in a lot of companies, the initial experiments are not necessarily going to be successful right away. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be eventually.
Tom: I agree with that, and I think the way we will succeed with this technology, or frankly, with any collaboration-oriented technologies, is to be fairly rigorous in looking at what works and what doesn’t. I’ve been giving a new talk that I call, “The Science of Collaboration,” which says the companies that are really successful using the Web are very scientific about it. They look very carefully at blogs and try to understand what works. We need to approach collaboration with that level of discipline.
What’s your vision for Enterprise 2.0 over the next five years?
Andy: My optimistic vision is that a professional services firm, for example, would deploy some level of toolset that makes it extremely easy for them to find the colleague elsewhere in the company who’s the best person to help them with Problem X. I think of a tool that allows me to broadcast my experience and my knowledge within the firm and makes it very easy for people to find me and ping me. It also makes it very easy for me to build a network of people I respect or trust for various reasons and exploit that network.
Tom: Well, we’ve been talking about expertise, networks, and directories in professional services firms for a long time. I think it is an interesting illustration of emergent organization of information versus top-down taxonomy. Years ago the firm I was working in tried to create an expertise directory, and I was always frustrated by the fact that the top-down taxonomies couldn’t capture anything I knew about. On the other hand, the terms I used to describe myself were not necessarily what somebody else was searching for. You really need some mix of the two.
Andy: I’d like to have a couple of people employed in the company who are the new style of corporate librarian, what wiki fans call a “gardener.” These are the people who go in and add to the structure of these more emergent environments.
One of the things that makes me optimistic is the number of senior executives who are starting to say, “I sense something happening here. I see my kids on Facebook. I see how hard it is to attract and retain young people. I sense this different energy happening. And I feel like there’s some train leaving the station and I’d rather be on it than off it.”
Tom: Well, I certainly hope they do. And if they do it because of these technologies as opposed to the last generation of technologies, fine with me. But I guess I’m pessimistic because they didn’t do it when all this stuff was being described years ago for knowledge management. Certainly these technologies make some aspects of it easier. But I never really thought it was the technology that was holding companies back before. I hope I’m wrong.
[First published in ON magazine]