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6/19/2009
04:21 AM
Venkatesh Rao
Venkatesh Rao
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Can Enterprise 2.0 Afford to be Boring?

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 BoringestThink 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 MissingHere'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.

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