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Old Fashioned Bosses Threaten Enterprise 2.0 Progress

MIT's Andrew McAfee, who coined the term Enterprise 2.0, sees threats to the achievements in collaboration and communications brought about by social software.

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Five years ago, MIT research scientist Andrew McAfee took to the pages of the Sloan Management Review to promote the potential of something he called Enterprise 2.0.

Enterprise 2.0
In that 2006 article, he asked whether "this weird set of technologies we see on the Web under the Web 2.0 label" could be applied to real business problems, he recalled in a keynote address at Enterprise 2.0 Boston, a UBM TechWeb event. "Five years later, I think we can say the answer is yes." With major technology companies like IBM and Cisco investing in social software, and major corporations like Eli Lilly taking advantage of it, Enterprise 2.0 is proving its mettle, he said.

Far from being a solution in search of a problem, social software solves a core business problem, McAffee said. He explained with a quote from former HP CEO Lew Platt: "If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more productive." Platt's point was that in a large organization it's easy for knowledge and expertise to be buried, "leading to a huge amount of redundancy and wheel-spinning," McAffee said. Social software addresses that issue by letting employees easily share knowledge in a format that can be preserved and organized for discovery, he said.

While earlier generations of knowledge management software had a similar goal, social software is succeeding because it taps into "deep human needs" that promote participation, McAfee said. "It's a need to be a part of a community, and to have a voice in that community." Phenomena like the "gamification" of social software to include visible indicators of status in return for participation are just another aspect of the psychology of wanting to feel like part of a community, he said.

Social software skeptics within organizations often fear that employees will use it irresponsibly, or waste too much in idle chatter rather than getting work done, but those fears are rarely realized, McAfee said. "If you give people these sorts of tools, they will behave like mature individuals, by and in large."

Despite that, he sees potential threats to Enterprise 2.0 driven by "old fashioned bosses and newfangled computers." The managerial threat is from bosses who feel threatened by open ad hoc collaboration and would rather shove workers back into "an endless cube farm that spreads to the horizon," where "everyone is boxed in, doing their work inside the box."

The "newfangled computers" in this equation are analytical systems like Watson, the IBM supercomputer that recently won Jeopardy, defeating the game show's most legendary champions.

Social software works by exploiting the links humans create between pieces of information, but systems like Watson are capable of extracting knowledge from masses of information without human assistance, McAfee said--and might be just what those old fashioned bosses are looking for to convince themselves they don't need Enterprise 2.0 after all.

To ward off that danger, McAfee suggests using social software to maximizing the value of uniquely human judgment, rather than making humans behave like automatons. He closed with another quote, this one from the newspaper columnist Sydney J. Harris: "The real danger is not that computers will begin to think like men, but that men will begin to think like computers."

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