Here’s a truth. Web 2.0 is interesting; Enterprise 2.0 is boring. When social technologies cross the firewall, they seem to lose the ambience of red-blooded, consequential and anarchic excitement that surrounds them in the public space (take for instance the excitement over Iran on Twitter). Equally, they usually fail to penetrate into the most adrenaline-charged, pulse-pounding core of the world of business. Why is this, and why is this dangerous? Why do we need flame wars and Twitter tsunamis (mutatis mutandis) to penetrate the firewall? I am going to be listening for this theme next week at E 2.0 (DM me @vgr or email me if you’d like to connect over a drink next week on this question or any of our other favorite topics like culture change, KM vs. SM etc.)
Business at its Best and Boringest
Think of the most exciting parts of business. The charged atmosphere of a sales office “bullpen” in the morning, as salespeople make their morning calls before hitting the road. The boiler room excitement of a trading room. The bated-breath 3-2-1-ignition! pressure of a product launch. The blow-by-blow of a complex battle to steal a major customer from a competitor. Compared to how gut-real business can get at its best, the atmosphere of the virtual communities inhabiting Enterprise 2.0 infrastructure can feel pretty anemic (with the exception of IM and email, which I don’t count as “social media” anyway). From what I’ve heard from friends, this seems to be broadly true across all but the most aggressive and young small companies.
I am thinking here primarily of broad, enterprise-wide elements like a popular intranet blog or wiki, or an intra-company laconi.ca or yammer microblog. But even workgroup-level stuff, though closer to “mission critical,” rarely rises to the level of “exciting.” Staff organizations seem to do more with social media than line organizations. Innocuous fun stuff and watercooler banter goes ’2.0′ pretty quickly. Caucus groups post their event roundups. Extra-curricular groups jump in to share picnic or softball game pictures. Armchair strategists, safely distant from the real strategy tables, post interesting news articles and uncontroversial comments about industry trends.
Official but low-impact/mostly harmless committees love the 2.0 medium too. You know what I mean: the ones chartered to do various non-critical-path things like “look into” a new long-term trend, champion green practices, organize a seminar series, or whatever. The medium is a natural home for their activities. Don’t pretend you haven’t seen something like this:
“We are starting this blog to share thoughts and findings from our committee on blah blah blah, and provide a forum where community members can have their voices heard, share their thoughts and provide feedback. Readers can find a collection of resources at this repository. Let the fun begin!”
The signs are unmistakable: a slightly self-important, editorial “committee” voice, and a hopelessly retarded attempt to humanize and be “engaging.” Quite often, there are overtones of social justice, empowerment and other such themes. Cheap shots aside, I’ve run or participated in a couple of such committee efforts myself. While they have their place and value, they are not where the action is. The evidence is pretty compelling: the part of the enterprise that is going “2.0″ fastest is the periphery, the part that views itself as disenfranchised, not the center. For every 2 blogs or wiki entries that display a wicked sense of humor or dare to raise truly consequential issues, there are 8 mostly-harmless dullsville pieces.
You could argue that this behavior is justified risk aversion. People don’t want to go on the record saying potentially unsafe, job-threatening stuff, or stuff that could be read as criticizing peers. People certainly don’t want to widely distribute sensitive or need-to-know information. Unfortunately that explanation doesn’t hold water. There is typically plenty of room between the reasonable boundary and the boundary at which people actually seem to stop. You don’t have to put together the communication around a million-dollar deal in a blog-fishbowl to make things interesting.
Why the Excitement is Missing
Here’s why I believe the exciting stuff is missing. The exciting people, by and large, are missing. One part of the reason is hard to fix. The exciting people — say the guy leading the consequential re-org, or managing the “bet the company” product launch, is probably far busier than everybody else. But I suspect there is another reason: to put it in terms of an American high school analogy, it is the same reason the “cool kids” avoid the “loser kids.” Enterprise 2.0 is mostly populated by the equivalent of band geeks. The equivalent of football players and cheerleaders are possibly avoiding it. Just possibly, they might be thinking “nobody who is anybody goes there; nothing that matters happens there.” And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Enterprise 2.0 stuff fails to deliver value, despite popularity and heavy activity, because the valuable stuff isn’t happening on it to begin with.
The world of business inherits its exciting elements from the market economy, the only truly Darwinian ecosystem (modulo bailouts) that modern information workers participate in. Those who participate in the risks, participate in the excitement. Those who want safety and security do their best to stay out of the line of fire.
It is critically important that Enterprise 2.0 tools get adopted by the risk takers and in-the-line-of-fire people actually driving the business. If we speculate that 20% of the employees are responsible for 80% of the results, we need that proportion reflected in online activity. The people who don’t pull their punches. The ones who dare to call a spade a spade. The ones who know how to tell the truth without unnecessary collateral damage. Without them, the revolution that Enterprise 2.0 thinking is capable of triggering will not happen.
Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at www.ribbonfarm.com, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.
It’s true, all of the social computing tools, either side of the firewall are a reflection of the people using them but that’s a good thing. Chances are if your company has a dull E2 presence then you are lacking the sufficient number of fired-up and passionate people to make it work well.
Good article. I love 20/80 part of activity and participation. In the end it’s all about truth and trust. But how to force change management in levels wich are spread this wide?
I agree with your article but from my point of view “boring” is not the appropriate term to use for E2.0. I’d rather say “inappropriate”. In most cases the E2.0 initiative is still coming from a buzz and not a need. Some people in the company would say “Woaa look at Twitter! We should have this to work here!” and there you go, budget is approved, the collaborative platform arrives in the enterprise.
But what was the objective upfront? What did we want to improve with it? What benefits are we expecting?
The wait and see strategy will never work with this. Think about the blackberry for instance. Blackberry wasn’t exciting itself. What was great was that for passionate managers life could be even better. You could treat much more emails than before and stay connected to your business. The push function increased the excitement you could get from your business by telling you “Now you can do more”.
What enterprise 2.0 should do now in my opinion is to try to improve specific aspects of business. It should be a catalyst helping the business to grow faster. It should not become the business.
Sten: I think I stick to “boring.” Typical use isn’t really inappropriate. The sorts of uses I mentioned are quite appropriate and valuable in themselves. It is just that when they are all there is, it ends up creating a “sideshows only” atmosphere, with the main event absent.
I agree with the objectives part, but that’s something only the mission-critical target population can set for themselves, and only after some experimentation to learn what the medium is capable of. Champions who are from another function cannot really tell top sales people what objectives make sense.
Focusing on specific aspects of business, function by function, is a good idea now. Too many efforts just seem to want to jump to “enterprise wide” without sufficient function-level critical mass.
Without those internal “champions/cheerleaders”, you’re sunk. And if those people are too busy doing the work that needs doing to worry about your new “Knowledge Management Hub/Wiki/Blog/etc” *snicker*, you’ll never get any traction.
The reality is that those “slightly self-important, editorial committee” members rank higher on the org chart than the people actually using the exciting tools to get their job done, and until they “get it” (won’t happen) or move on (not likely in this economy, our 2.0 champions are likely cheaper to fire), you’re SOL.
work becomes exciting when you have a group of people who are sharing your goals, amplifying your ideas and vice versa. collaboration makes work engaging and exciting, enterprise 2.0 makes collaboration work. so – yeah the people who spend their day on yammer might be dull, but when you have a really collaborative org, its not boring. and blogging isn’t enterprise 2.0 – its just a thing people do now – sometimes for better, sometimes just because.
Enterprise 2.0 tools become exciting when people experience real benefit from them — better discoverability of knowledge or expertise, professional reputation enhancement, serendipitous innovation because the tools tap into the long tail of the company’s community, etc. The specific benefits will vary from org. to org., but the mistake that gets made and undermines the opportunities to achieve real, tangible benefit is the mistake of unfocused implementation. That is, as others have touched on here already, rolling out the tools without knowing what purpose they exist to serve. Targeting E2.0 implementation to specific, limited business initiatives makes the impact of the tools much more obvious. “Think big, start small, act fast”, and “Enterprise 2.0 adoption is a glacier, not fireworks”: those are two ideas I’ve held onto since last year’s E2.0 conference and I think they apply here. Target, demonstrate real benefit, let the converted evangelize, and build incrementally across the enterprise.
Interesting analogy and perspective. You ever watch “Breakfast Club” the movie? Well, I would say those kids, who had to stay after school, are the early adopters of E2.0 tools. The jocks are the middle or senior managers, who have the organizational power and fat enough paycheck to not want to learn a new tool or deal with empowered subordinates. The cheerleaders are the subordinates who rather kiss (the jocks’) asses to get promoted than to collaborate with their peers. Put all that together, and you’ve got a very tough challenge to get E2.0 tools adopted broadly within a large org.
That’s why I contend that E2.0 initiatives can only be successful if there’s C-level sponsorship, ideally the CEO him/herself with the CIO and Head of HR having joint stakeholdership and a direct report of the CIO having ownership. See my blog for more of my thoughts about Enterprise 2.0 strategy.
Also, the goal should be to get the 80% of the employees using E2.0 tools because the top 10-20% are already quite resourceful, communicative, and collaborative. Catering to them would only create a deep divide within an org. That 80% has plenty of ideas and can do some great work, but they just don’t know how to focus their energies. They need encouragement, camaraderie, community! Then from within communities of interest or practice, some of that 80% will form teams either with each other or with some of that 20% who can provide leadership and guidance to pursue a shared idea or objective. And that is when E2.0 starts to get exciting.
Very interesting post. And comments. Since I’m coming in late, I’ll just add this: we’ve generated real business results from our efforts in the E2.0 arena – paying customers. Sure, we’ve boosted awareness, inquiries, web traffic, etc. But, as it is said, money talks.
Adam, re: your comment “we’ve generated real business results” – pray tell specifics. :-)
it’s been boring forever, long before “enterprise” replaced the word “company” .. boring boring boring ..
Interesting article but I think it misses an important point. People are accountable within a company in a way that they are not in open society.
The ‘society’ of most companies is still closer to a feudal hierarchy. Most people in a company do not feel free to speak completely openly and interestingly.
Social networking in the outside world reflects the openness of society where peers are essentially equal. This is not the case within the most larger enterprises.
A major point missing in E 2.0 debate is precisely to address this difference. See for instance, Malone’s “Future of Work” that argues that the workplace is democratizing. So as this trend intersects the E 2.0 trend, your point will no longer be true, but I suspect “boring” might still be :) I am not sure.
I’d use the word “democratize” myself. Not necessary open/equal.
Was in a few of the sessions at e2conf with you. I have a bit of a dissenting opinion on the matter though…
Remember Xerox was a pioneer in Blogging, aka John Seely Brown having Xerox Repair Men Write War Stories…
Stories are how we remember things, rather than training programs, rather than boring internal stuff.
honestly bro if you think Enterprise 2.0 is boring, you need to dig deeper, it is the new bastion of tattoo’s, culture, music and weezer songs.
seriously check out internal social nets, such as Best Buy and ‘ Blue Shirt Nation’
this is something I have been pushing for over 5 years.
Enterprise 2.0 is fun bro! But sometimes the clients are not, we just want to get out of our chairs and slap them in their ego glorifying face…
I have mixed views to your article.
I agree, that all standard business/enterprise work is boring, but I don’t think Enterprise 2.0 is boring, if anything, it should make things more interesting (when done properly).
There are 2 things that Enterprise 2.0 software should do to make work less boring.
1. It should replace a human task, and the software should do it itself. This includes crunching numbers, analysis. For example, a company ordering system that automatically places a new order with the supplier when stock is low is an example of something done by Enterprise 2.0 systems, that before would have had to be done by a human, and that is a boring task.
2. Enterprise 2.0 software should also make work transparent, as in the data and information we manage as part of our business lives should be seamlessly connected between our daily tasks, and between our colleges. CRM systems, online billing sites, call centres, sales peoples mobile devices are all able to connect and share the same data with Enterprise 2.0 software, something that was impossible before it came about.
Even the the UKs biggest supermarket Tesco has an API for people to write software for now, an Amazon has had one for years, and in their case has resulted in additional sales. The UK popular bookseller Waterstones, actually used Amazon to run their own branded website via an API for years instead of running their own, this is an example of something achievable with Enterprise 2.0 semantics.
So work is very boring yes, but Enterprise 2.0 can be a solution to that. Good interfaces are the beginning of jazzing things up.
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