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12/16/2009
03:33 PM
Venkatesh Rao
Venkatesh Rao
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The Right and Left Brains of Enterprise 2.0

The idea of Enterprise 2.0 is now a couple of years old, well into the trough of disillusionment as far as hype cycle position goes, and broad outlines are starting to become clear. So it is not surprising that two books have appeared in the last year that treat the subject broadly, systematically, and without the Kool-Aid that characterized books like Wikinomics, which appeared much earlier in the hype cycle. The first is one by the most usual of suspects, Andrew McAfee, titled, like his original article that coined the term, Enterprise 2.0 (the subtitle though, has changed appropriately, from "The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration" to "New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization's Toughest Challenges.") The second is "Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom" by Matt Fraser and Soumitra Dutta. The two books are ideal foils to each other. They tackle the left and right brains of the Enterprise 2.0 idea respectively. To a certain extent, they are also evil twins to each other. Which one is better for you?McAfee and the Left BrainMcAfee's book is dry, to the point and somewhat formulaic, but it gets the job done. That job is to serve as ammunition for E 2.0 evangelists, change agents and executive sponsors everywhere. The book is a well-balanced mix of anecdotes and concepts, with a couple of new acronyms thrown in (ESSP: emergent social software platform). Astutely, McAfee starts with a personal story that gently encourages skeptics to identify with his own trajectory. He recounts how he was personally skeptical of the claims of the Web 2.0 movement until he decided to look up "Skinhead" on Wikipedia (the idea being that as a contentious flame-bait topic, it would stress Wikipedia's claims of being able to produce level-headed articles on contentious subjects). Wikipedia passed the test, won over McAfee, and presumably, at this point, the book will sort of draw the skeptical reader into adopting a more open mindset.From there, the book proceeds systematically to a chapter-length answer to the basic "what problems does this solve?" question asked by passive aggressive blockers and nay-sayers every evangelist must face, titled "vexations and missed opportunities in group work."We then get a brief history (too brief, as we'll see) and a treatment of how E 2.0 does what earlier generations of Enterprise groupware and Knowledge Management (KM) failed to do (yay! for my early KM vs. SM thesis). The usual laundry list of design principle differences are trotted out, starting with the basic distinction between folksonomies versus top-down imposed taxonomies.After what are essentially "neutralize the nay-sayers" ammunition chapters, we get a more positively-framed chapter listing the benefits. That concludes Part I. If you are using this as your tactical evangelism manual, by this time you should have convinced your quarry of the basic value proposition, and have him or her prepped for the deployment discussion.Part II proceeds with a higher-level neutralization task: the roadblocks to deployment and operationalization. A particularly valuable section is "red herrings" -- the huge list of idiotic objections that slow adoption (arising rarely from genuine ignorance, and usually from basic risk aversion, inertia, posturing by self-styled "critics" of flavors of the month, and intentional passive aggression). This bit should help newbie evangelists avoid particularly vicious and tortuous bunny trails and arguments that go nowhere, with people who don't intend on moving, and who don't need to be moved. Then we get a sketch of the the legitimate concerns, and a wise caution to prepare for the long haul. I was pleased to see a strong bit of advice to avoid the ROI question and focus on "are we moving?" as the core operational strategy question (the book does not address business model strategy at any length).The book concludes with two chapters titled "Going Mainstream" and "Looking Ahead" which are roadmap fodder for the unfortunate middle managers everywhere tasked with creating those powerpoint slides for senior exec briefings. "Looking Ahead" has one nice bit about a "Model 1" (goal-directed/waterfall) vs. "Model 2" (open-ended/agile) approaches, and should help evangelists set the right expectations.Overall, the book is a workman-like tactical manual aimed at driving change. That does make it somewhat tedious and boring to those of us who've already been down this road and learned the lessons the hard way, but it is critical to understand that this sort of book is essential for the army of second-generation evangelists out there (think Marines vs. Army), to make sure they are solving the right problems, and solving them right. A big part of this is knowing which battles to pick, and knowing who must be persuaded and who needs to be sidestepped.If I have one criticism, it is that the book is almost too cynically level-headed and focused on being the ammunition needed by the frontline warriors. Even frontline folks have souls and need some inspiration and a sense of wonder at what we still don't understand, to keep them going. Rather than focusing on converting the resistance through sparking genuine "Aha!" moments, the book focuses on helping believers win, outmaneuver the resistance, and push through their agenda. Winning hearts, minds and souls isn't something the book will help with.The book will also not help those who already have frontline experience in their search for a broader philosophical synthesis and intellectual stimulation. That book is the Fraser/Dutta one.Fraser/Dutta and the Right BrainThrowing Sheep in the Boardroom is a very different book. It eschews all talk of mundane practical issues except where such talk helps to make broader social-psychological or historical points. The book also does not suffer fools gladly, and is written at a high, nearly academic level. I suspect (and I am being pessimistic here) that the book will simply be beyond the comprehension of the majority of bright-eyed and clueless evangelists who just want to whine about (ugh) "culture change." While their efforts may be propped up and rendered safe in the short term by good practical manuals like McAfee's, to operate at higher levels of sophistication, understanding at this level is needed. Most will not achieve it. They will be doomed to energetic and misguided evangelism that will do more harm than good.With that caveat, a look at the book. I have less to say here since it is a dense, closely-argued book that is anything but formulaic.The overall narrative attempts to make a single broad point: Enterprise 2.0 tools up-end power structures in radical ways, and the higher-level social psychology questions that matter are all about the various tensions that play out in individual power struggles and authority battles.To this end, the book situates the E 2.0 debate in a much broader context, drawing its inspiration from the power struggles between the "hierarchical" monarchies and "horizontal" Knights Templar in medieval European Christendom. There is a nuanced discussion of power, status, authority (ascriptive as well as real), and how these evolve when there is a struggle between hierarchical and network modes of organization. There are deep discussions of social identity, privacy, loyalty and friendship. Where McAfee and others take ideas like ratings at face value, Fraser and Dutta dive deep into the motivations driving rating behavior.The book is very loosely structured at an overt level, but is very tight at the sentence level. There are three parts titled Identity, Status and Power, each with 5 chapters. There are no crutches for those with weak stomachs. No anecdote boxes, no graphs, no bullet lists of key concepts and talking points. Instead, each chapter is a single densely argued essay that dives into a few tricky themes. The only concession to "popular" accessibility is a single well-chosen cartoon at the start of each part. Don't expect to easily translate this book to Powerpoint.It is a keep-up-or-shut-up book that takes no prisoners. While not scholarly in the strict sense, there are plenty of references to the sort of original literature that most readers would never think of reading. Probably the best thing about the book is that it pointedly avoids annoying Kumbaya talk about how social software is all about world peace and Burning Man sensibilities. It is not, it is about the same old ornery self-interested, calculating individualists that power is always about. Again, I feel vindicated (see The Unsociable, Radically Individualist Soul of Social Media)The overall effect of the book is that it delivers a brilliant and much-needed boost to the level of the discourse. This is the level at which we should be talking at today. This is the level at which fresh insights are still available. This is the level at which the conversation needs to operate if what McAfee calls the "long haul" challenge is to be met. Unfortunately, I think maybe 10% of the people who need to be talking at this level will actually be able to do so. I don't mean to be elitist here. This has simply been my personal experience. Enthusiasm for a cause, and competence in supporting it are not the same thing.Which Should You Read?Ideally, you should read both. Use McAfee's book to help you fight your battles. Even if you already know all that stuff and have gone beyond, the book is the ammunition you need. Put a little bit of your own soul into the battle though.The Fraser/Dutta material is far more dangerous and subversive. If you really get what is being talked about, you should be cautious in selecting who you discuss the ideas with. The ideas openly frame the conflicts the right way, and only those who have been won over heart and soul will be prepared to engage you at this level.If you can read and follow McAfee, but find that Fraser/Dutta leaves you confused and fumbling, you might want to gently step back from what you are doing before you do too much damage.Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business, innovation, and other stuff at www.ribbonfarm.com, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this post are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.

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