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9/21/2009
03:19 PM
Stowe Boyd
Stowe Boyd
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Social Business: Why The 'Enterprise 2.0' Moniker Is Wrong

I spent a great deal of time working on the Open Enterprise 2009 Research project earlier this year, leading up to the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. I learned a great deal through the interviews with many thought leaders and practitioners, like Charlene Li, Euan Semple, Andy McAfee, Laurie Buczak, and Walton Smith, to name only a few. On reflection, I realized that in general the term Enterprise 2.0 was not used much, and no one spontaneously stepped forward with an impassioned argument as to why the term was even helpful.Denis Howlett recently stated that Enterprise 2.0 is a crock, basically making the case that the knowledge management-ish arguments in support of E 2.0 don't gibe with the way companies actually have to operate, what their drivers are, or what problems confront them. Andy McAfee responded with a not particularly brief or convincing response, stringing together a number of very narrow use cases -- like bringing new hires up to speed, or internal prediction markets -- and stating that since these problems exist, and since various solutions to those problems are being herded together as Enterprise 2.0ish applications, therefore Enterprise 2.0 is a good thing, worthy of our attention.I think something more significant is at work, and those things called Enterprise 2.0 form only one bit of this bigger whole. The world in which work exists has changed fairly drastically in recent years, and so we are seeing a fundamental reset in the nature of work. On a secondary level, this translates into changes in how people communicate, coordinate, and collaborate, and this, then, leads to changes in information technology and related practices. Note, however, that talking about the secondary effects of these global business and social changes in and of themselves is, from my point of view, not a very illuminating exercise at the best, and at the worst, completely misleading.In a way, you could interpret Denis' polemic as making a similar point, but I don't think that his perceptions are based on the sense of a sweeping change in the world of business, but rather the views that the timeless nature of business operations have nothing to do with knowledge management. Howlett's grumping is just some context for my point: 'Enterprise 2.0' is a not particularly useful characterization of what is going on with the spread of Web 2.0 technologies and practices in the world of business. Note that I am a strong advocate for the use of the Web 2.0 handle, despite the various attempts by iconoclasts to topple it in 2008, or Arrington's theory that a overpheromoned party of cool kids meant the demise of 2.0. I think Web 2.0 is fairly well-understood to represent a set of convergent and mutually supportive ideas -- the Web as a platform, open standards, APIs, social tools, fast and low-cost development tools and techniques -- that have come to define a generation of Web development and business.Enterprise 2.0, on the other hand, does not have the same coherence. Perhaps this is because so many of the principles of Web 2.0 are blunted by the command-and-control needs of the enterprise. You cannot state that Enterprise 2.0 is Web 2.0 for the enterprise because much of what defines Web 2.0 does not easily translate to the enterprise context. In particular, Web 2.0 as a phenomenon is strongly tied to social tools -- social networking, social media, and so on -- in which the individual is primary, and asymmetric networks of relationships with other individuals form the principal mechanism for connection and information flow. However, this does not gibe with the enterprise obsession with groups: where the rights and responsibilities of individuals are derived from group membership, and these rights are granted by the enterprise.This apparently minor mismatch between the individualistic web and the organizational one desired by management leads me to believe that we are looking at the wrong end of the sausage machine. We need to switch our attention to the shifting nature of work itself, and how business needs to be reconsidered in a rapidly changing world (which includes a revolutionary social Web, notably). Toward that end, all manner of innovations, tools, and practices might be evaluated for their utility and impacts, but they cannot be considered hanging in space, in some sort of strategic vacuum. First and foremost, management must settle on some principles around which work itself can be reworked. Difficult questions must be posed, and deep and principled thinking must take place before tactical software and business process changes can take place. In essence, forward-looking companies will devise something like a constitution and a bill of rights that attempt to lay out a worldview about the purpose of the firm, what it stands for, how it will treat its customers, what is expected from employees, and what the social contract between the company and individuals -- employees and customers -- is.So, I have come to believe that this is the place where companies need to focus their attention: socializing the business, not adoption of Web 2.0. I see that very smart folks in Dachis Group, Altimeter Group, and other upstart consulting firms are focusing on 'Social Business' as a defining theme, and I am lending my voice to that chorus.In a time when we are shifting to a new, flow-oriented paradigm on information sharing and network-based coordination and collaboration, it might be fitting to focus on process and not its outcomes. Let's leave the version numbering to one side, and accept the inevitability of reworking work into a much more social form. This will not be a one-time thing, but an ongoing and unending process of innovation.In effect, we need to shift to a much more agile and adaptive way of thinking about social and collective action within businesses, and managing in a very different world than we were even a few years ago, back when Enterprise 2.0 might have seemed like a great term. Nowadays that term may be holding us back and confusing folks that haven't been as close to the discussion as we have.

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