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Social Wars: The Enterprise Strikes Back

In the transition to Enterprise 2.0 capitalism, the incumbent provider of the 1.0 IT infrastructure generally wins with its bolt-on, all-in-one 2.0 offering.
Shortly thereafter, corporate IT announces it has purchased a major new platform--surprise, surprise, it's the incumbent's bolt-on to 1.0 infrastructure--and that all new blogs must use that platform. In the rare cases where the incumbent is displaced, the new vendor will generally also be a 1.0-style vendor, angling to take over the entire IT infrastructure rather than just the 2.0 layer and able to absorb enough of the large switching costs involved.

As a sop to the pioneers, the old blog is grandfathered in as a quasi-legitimate denizen of the company's social intranet. The grandfathered, non-standard blog is treated privately as a liability to be tolerated. It's feted publicly as a piece of history. It was born a rebel, and it lives on as a rebel, declawed.

If that seems like a reasonable outcome to you, consider the following exaggerated analogy.

It is the 1970s. Silicon Valley is being born, and a whole new model of entrepreneurship is taking root. Traditional manufacturing is under threat from Japan.

President Carter appoints a committee to study why California is succeeding while Detroit is struggling. After an elaborate study of American competitiveness, the committee reaches a conclusion: The lowest-cost and most rational growth strategy is to ignore Silicon Valley and direct massive federal funding and corporate incentives to the Big Three automakers and the steel industry, and have them lead America's charge into computing. It is, of course, completely rational for Detroit and Pittsburgh, the experienced and "adult" leaders of American industry, to take over from the little boys in Silicon Valley in order to take the game to the next level.

So the governors of the Rust Belt states set up an industrial commission, led by their local captains of industry, to oversee the digitization of America. Instead of choosing between Macs and PCs, America enters the digital age choosing between GM and Ford computers.

Unfortunately, this storyline is often the real storyline when it comes to Enterprise 2.0 adoption.

Mortality Blindness

To understand why this happens, despite the best intentions of the people involved, recall Deep Thought, the fictional computer in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that computed the answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything (which turned out to be 42). Deep Thought couldn't compute the actual question but had enough self-awareness to recognize its own limitations and ended up designing its successor, the computer that could figure out the question.

Today's organizations are like large computers, except that unlike Deep Thought, they lack awareness of their own limitations and therefore don't gracefully deal with their own obsolescence. They're not aware of the larger processes of creative destruction that govern their ultimate fates. They're blind and brittle, not self-aware and fluid.

Most business functions are designed around the premise that work processes are static, even if new tools sometimes replace old tools to drive them. Adaptation processes are designed to drive gradual evolution that hardens an organization rather than allow for creative destruction to revitalize it.

The reality, of course, is that a truly radical new tool, if unleashed effectively, re-engineers the very processes into which it is introduced. A process that can do this sort of effective unleashing must necessarily be aware of its own mortality and be willing to gracefully die.

A process that can't do this ends up either rejecting radical change or rendering it impotent. The result is that the process buys itself a few more years of life, at the expense of the resilience and survivability of the company itself.

So how can we avoid this failure mode? Stay tuned for the conclusion to this trilogy. No prizes for guessing the title.

Venkatesh Rao is a writer and independent researcher at ribbonfarm.com and the author of Tempo. He can be contacted via LinkedIn.

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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