Enterprise 2.0: Google Wave, A Solution Seeking A Problem?

The difficulty people have understanding Google Wave reflects broader uncertainty about the value of Enterprise 2.0 in the workplace.
Following up on a presentation at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference on Wednesday with partners Novell, SAP, and ThoughtWorks, members of Google's Wave team on Thursday offered a deeper dive into how Wave can be integrated into enterprise environments.

Google Wave product manager Gregory D'Alesandre made one bit of news: "Wave will be available as part of the Google Apps suite if you have Google Apps for your domain," he said, adding that at some point, Wave will just be turned on for Google Apps customers.

But D'Alesandre's primary focus involved helping conference attendees understand how Wave can be used, an aspiration that, in the broader context of Enterprise 2.0 tools, animated many of the presenters at the conference.

The fact is that many business people still regard social, collaborative systems -- the heart of Enterprise 2.0 -- as solutions in search of a problem. Skepticism about the utility of Enterprise 2.0 technology abounds, which explains why several conference sessions attempted to address the doubters.

A presentation earlier on Thursday morning, for example, dealt with ways to get executives to back social initiatives in large organizations. Key advice: Start small and solve a problem.

For all Google's market clout and the evident support of developers and of market leaders like Novell and SAP, Wave faces similar uncertainty in the market, magnified by company talking points that have made Wave sound like a replacement for e-mail.

Positioning Wave at this point in its evolution as a replacement for e-mail is about as plausible as asserting that electric cars represent a replacement for gasoline-powered cars. It could happen, but many years will pass before then.

Google Wave, for those not familiar with it, is a Web-based communication product that's also a platform -- it can be extended through APIs -- and protocol -- other programs can communicate with Wave servers. It combines the asynchronous communication of e-mail with the real-time communication of instant messaging. This allows collaborative online interaction.

D'Alesandre made sure that everyone understood Wave isn't intended to replace e-mail. "The place to start is not to say, 'this can replace e-mail so let's use it instead of e-mail,'" he said. "The place to use it is where current technologies are the worst fit."

Google employees, he said, use Waves primarily for collaborative design documentation, a use-case that could be served by a wiki, were wikis tuned for real-time interaction.

Google workers also use Waves as an alternative to the "Working from home" messages that previously tended to clog e-mail inboxes. There's now a single Wave that Wave team members can use to update colleagues on their whereabouts. It's a small but noteworthy productivity gain.

With the help of third parties like Novell, SAP, and ThoughtWorks, other business-oriented use cases for Wave will emerge. But it will take time, just as it will take time for companies to understand where opportunities for social and collaborative interaction align with business goals.

Neither Wave nor Enterprise 2.0 represent miracle cures. They're not the answer to everything. But they're also not punch lines.

TechWeb, which operates the Enterprise 2.0 Conference, also publishes InformationWeek.

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