Enterprise 2.0 – 2006 rewind

Last week, Jive – the enterprise collaboration software company – was finally acquired. This was announced on the at the annual JiveWorld event – which is a little bit like announcing to the family and friends who’ve come to your 40th birthday party that you’ve just got married to a total stranger in a Las Vegas chapel and they should totally be happy for the both of you.

I do not know much about ESW Capital or the portfolio of software companies that they own but I do know that Jive’s plans for the future pretty much consisted of being bought by someone. Time will tell if the match is a good one.

But that’s not why we’re here. In the wake of this news, James Dellow posed the following questions: “A few people have also suggested that it also flags the end of the Enterprise 2.0 era… If we accept that as true and we held a retrospective on E2.0, what would you say about it? … Or do you disagree – is the dream of E2.0 still alive and well?”

Always being up for a challenge, I went back to the original Andrew McAfee article on Enterprise 2.0. Here’s the opening sentences:

Do we finally have the right technologies for knowledge work? Wikis, blogs, group-messaging software and the like can make a corporate intranet into a constantly changing structure built by distributed, autonomous peers — a collaborative platform that reflects the way work really gets done.

Well the answer to that first question is pretty simple: No, we don’t. Or rather, the technologies that we had in 2006 did not satisfy end users and their needs for collaborative knowledge work. Nor do the technologies we have now in 2017 for that matter. This is partly about the technologies and partly about the users and their expectations but more of that later.

Lets begin by looking at the tech and going through the 6 technical capabilities that made up McAfee’s Enterprise 2.0:

  1. Search. Search on the web is awesome. Search inside organisations sucks. This is still the case. The thing here is that this is not really a technical problem. We have had the technology to dramatically improve the findability of information within organisations for years and the knowledge of how to do so – but we just haven’t bothered to actually do it. This is a problem of ineptitude rather than ignorance. Search continues to be underloved in corporate environments.
  2. Links. Google came to fame with the PageRank algorithm – which dealt with the problems of search by looking at the links between web pages rather than simply the words on them. McAfee’s point is that in an environment where lots of people author content that links to other content, links become better therefore search becomes better. Enterprise information environments are becoming more highly linked – but not through the methods that McAfee proposed. People don’t create documents with lots of links. However data that sits in multiple systems is being linked together – enabling not only better retrieval but deployment of that data in new forms and contexts.
  3. Authoring. If we give people in organisations blogs and wikis, verily they will write lots of stuff in these blogs and wikis. Nope. The vast majority of them won’t. Unless we pay them to.
  4. Tags. And then people will tag their stuff and other people’s stuff with lots of handy keywords. Nope. Most of them won’t do that either. Folksonomies get a reference. Ah the 2000s – such innocent days*!
  5. Extensions. Not hair extensions. Not exam extensions. Not exam extensions caused by hair extensions gone wrong. Instead – “automating some of the work of categorization and pattern matching” through recommendation engines and the like. A decade on, we are just starting to see this become a reality with search-based applications and AI.
  6. Signals. Letting people know what’s going on. With a funky, new technology like RSS. We do that but in different ways to the ones imagined in this article. Email is still… everywhere. Activity feeds became popular in the wake of Twitter and chat has come back in a big way in the last few years (hello Slack). I don’t think we have figured out how to make this work yet.

The article is noteworthy for the lack of any reference to Facebook (founded 2004), Twitter (yet to be launched in April 2006), or even MySpace (founded 2003). It’s dealing with a an earlier set of technologies that emerged in the consumer space and then were used by some inside corporations. A harsh reading (overly harsh) is that it’s already out of date on publication. A more generous reading is that it is an honest attempt to tackle a messy, emergent environment at a point in time. And that’s an inherently risky activity.

McAfee also identified 2 “threats” to Enterprise 2.0.

The first is that busy knowledge workers won’t use the new technologies, despite training and prodding. Most people who use the Internet today aren’t bloggers, wikipedians or taggers. They don’t help produce the platform — they just use it. Will the situation be any different on company intranets? It’s simply too soon to tell. The second threat is that knowledge workers might use Enterprise 2.0 technologies exactly as intended, but this may lead to unintended outcomes. Intranets today reflect one viewpoint —that of management — and are not platforms for dissent or debate. After blogs, wikis and other voice-giving technologies appear, this will change. However, the question remains: Will the change be welcomed?

The first threat proved to be absolutely correct. Most employees just want to do their jobs and these platforms were often considered “extra work”. Where they were integrated into the flow of work, they were successful. The second threat played out slightly differently to how it was phrased here. There wasn’t that much change to be welcomed or rejected.

Some of the more florid rhetoric of Enterprise 2.0 (which in this article is hinted at but largely absent) claimed that these new technologies would tear down corporate hierarchies and reconfigure organisations as kinder places. I don’t think they did. Timing may have been a factor – a couple of years after this article, the US economy nearly collapsed, millions of people lost their jobs, and tangling with your boss wasn’t top of the priority list. But, in general, I think the forces that create and maintain hierarchy in organisations are too strong to be shifted with blogs. On this point, I largely agree with Jeffrey Pfeffer.

Enterprise collaboration has still not been “solved” (see the interest in Slack, Facebook Workplace, the million different ways of collaborating in Office365) and that story feels like it has a way to go. However  the cluster of user generated content technologies that came to the fore in Web 2.0 are no longer where its hot.

The wheel turns – like Gartner’s Hype Cycle, like time eating away at your balance sheet and your technical debt, like the “Settings” cog icon on every bit of software today.

*Apart from the mass terrorism. And the wars. And the global financial collapse.

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3 Responses to Enterprise 2.0 – 2006 rewind

  1. llocklee says:

    Nice reflection Matt…amazing that we now reflect on the past decade in the way that our parents reflected on the last century!….Enterprise 2.0…so old school! While we haven’t ‘solved’ the collaboration problem it is a bit like solving the enterprise ‘search’ problem. We probably know how to do it but it might involve some unpopular authoritarian style decision making.

    I’ve often talked about KM in the simple terms of ‘collections’ (or content) and ‘connections’. Collections have always dominated our thinking until now when I sense that we are nearly ‘in balance’? And perhaps the scales may even tip toward connections/relationships even more over time.

    One thing McFee has got right is that the corporate world is definitely more (digitally) social now.

  2. innotecture says:

    Hi Laurie! I see the collections/connections distinctions gradually being dissolved. Our collections are getting less like books and more like databases or conversations.

    One issue with “collaboration” is that we lump so many different activities under this banner and expect one bit of software to work for them all. And we expect the software to fix our dysfunctional relationships – which isn’t really fair.

    Any insights from SWOOP?

    And, lo and behold, I saw these articles in my Tweet stream:

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