Friday, November 20, 2009

Making Enterprise 2.0 succeed - little things that can help

Its amazing how things happen to me at airports. I was flying out of San Francisco this morning and as is usual for me, I was very hungry for a big breakfast. So as soon as I got to the airport, I was hunting for a big meaty adventure. So I located Lori's diner on the north side of the airport and ordered a large breakfast with hashbrowns, eggs, sausages and bacon. You can see that I enjoy my food! When the food arrived though, it was in a paper plate and I had to cut, pierce and tear the crisp bacon with little plastic cutlery. If you haven't done this yet, I suggest you do it simply to know how tough this can be. The fork couldn't hold the bacon down, the knife just scratched the surface of the meat and the plate kept moving around. It felt like being asked to dance in an iron cast. And then suddenly, just as I always do, I thought about the learning tools we tend to provide to people in our organisation. Don't they often feel just like plastic cutlery and paper plates? But then aren't these tools very similar to those on the big, broad internet? Why do the tools on the Internet work so well? Why do enterprise intranets suck so much? I guessed I could put some thoughts down.

The Internet and the Web2.0 revolution

There's no denying that we're in the information age. In fact as Tony Buzan says, we're perhaps past the information age and we've reached the intelligence age. Andrew McAfee in his speeches often quotes someone saying, "The internet is the world's best library, only the books are all on the floor." Andrew continues to clarify that we've reached a point where the books are not really on the floor. They're organised using means that are more sophisticated cataloging system that we can think of. A thought and a few words can get you to the resources you need. The strange, self organising, voluntary yet incredibly effective nature of the internet amazes all of us. How did we reach this state where a spaghetti of links has metamorphosed into this incredible resource that most of us can't live without? On the other hand why do the same Web2.0 tools fail when we deploy them in the enterprise? There are a few phenomenon that separate Web 2.0 sucsesses from Enterprise 2.0 failures.


While we'd like to think that people like to help each other and that is obviously true, one of the biggest reasons for people to contribute content on the internet, is the recognition they get. Your work is out there for the whole wide world to admire or criticise, and with more eyeballs looking, you have the opportunity to grow from the fact that there are a bigger number of people following. For example, I prefer blogging on the internet as against my corporate intranet, simply because I can reach out to more people this way. People sometimes comment on my work, they email me and I feel good about what I do. A blogpost on the corporate intranet doesn't always get people the same kind of responses and it almost feels like they're doing all that work for 'nothing'. I remember someone saying, "People usually have no more than 10 minutes each day to contribute content 'for the benefit of others'. When they have a choice between the broad, appreciative, internet and the puny, thankless intranet, the decision is quite simple."

Critical Mass

A small fraction of a huge number is still a big number. Only about 1% of the internet's users contribute to Wikipedia and that's part of the participation inequality phenomenon. Similarly, very few people contribute to YouTube or write a blogs. Organisations often go by the assumption that if Wikipedia is successful, so will a corporate wiki. Guess what, 1% of a 500 person company is just 5 people. Intranets built on the same principles as the internet just don't have the benefit of the critical mass. The tougher it is to compose a resource, the lower the participation is and conversely the higher the need for a critical mass is. When deploying Web 2.0 technologies, organisations often forget how important it is to generate the critical mass of participation to create the eventual snowball effect that we see on the internet.


On the internet, people can get away with quite a lot of things. It doesn't matter if its Martin Fowler, Jay Cross, Tony Karrer or Joe Nobody's blog. You can post an anonymous comment and stay away from retribution. Hell, even a credentialised comment doesn't invite retribution. It doesn't matter how caustic your commentary is -- you can choose to speak your mind. Contrast this with a CEO's blog or wiki article on the intranet. In some places one could get fired for offering criticism to such resources. This limits participation everywhere - blogs, wikis, forums, etc. Then again, there's the fear of looking stupid in front of your co-workers. People feel safer on the internet than they do on the intranet.

Friendship & Networking

The internet is a great way for people to stay in touch with friends and to find like minded people. OTOH, corporate intranets conveniently ignore the word 'social' when deploying tools. The common feeling is is "If we make software social, then people won't focus on content -- they'll spend time socialising. We want people to learn, not socialise." In the absence of the opportunity to connect with the people you're producing content for, the motivation of producing content is lost. Its very difficult to keep producing reams of good content without knowing if anyone really uses any of it. After a while, the most active of contributors give up.

Usable Tools & a Low Entry Barrier

Most importantly, the internet is rich in tools that are:
a) Immensely usable;
b) Have a very low entry barrier -- take very little effort to get started with;
Take a look at the examples from our day to day life. Things are becoming simpler every day. Google, is the simplest search engine you can imagine. How much effort does it take to Twitter? Look at every tool that's gained mass acceptance, YouTube, Facebook, Orkut, Wikipedia, you name it and you'll realise its awfully easy to use. The biggest thing however, beyond all of the usability charm is the fact that you don't need to go through multiple levels of authentication to get to these tools. Tools like the ones on the Google stack, allow you to have a single sign on as well. A lot of tools keep you logged in forever or allow you to use desktop clients to make their usage simple. Contrast this to most enterprise intranets, characterised by multiple logins, security guidelines and usage restrictions. It really does feel like the plastic cutlery and paper plate.

What should our Enterprise 2.0 deployments look like?

When managers pitch for Enterprise 2.0, the focus is always on the business benefits, productivity and risks. Unfortunately we don't often think about the very social nature of the web -- the culture of altruism that makes the mish-mash of links stay alive. The key is in trying to bring in a similar cultural change in our organisations. I'm not talking about revolutionary, 'overthrow the tyrant' kind of changes. I'm talking about the little incremental changes that can make the use of social media in the workplace just as effective.

Frictionless and Ego Free

We need to think of how we make it easy to use social media in the workplace. How can we reduce the number of levels of authentication to access these tools. How about implementing single sign on? How can we foster a culture of open communication so that no one gets fired for openly expressing their views or sharing their criticism (unless they're really being jerks.) When a CxO airs an idea, how open is she to let the idea be shot down? How can we ensure that we encourage flatness of thought, where ideas from management are no more or less valuable than those from the usual workforce? How about using tools that require minimal expertise (think microblogging, wikis, video blogs, social qna)?

Reward Contributions

In most cases people want to help each other. The internet hinges on this altruism and people benefit from the recognition they get for their contributions. When you're competing against the internet for reach and recognition, the success of social media in the workplace depends on the reward people perceive for making a contribution. The rewards could be intrinsic, like a reputation the system automatically builds for you as you contribute and the way people perceive your contributions. The rewards could be extrinsic and small -- people seem to love stuff like coffee mugs and t-shirts. The recognition can be case-by-case; for example the COO writing in to someone to complement them on an article they put up. Or a community of practice putting up someone's video on YouTube as reference material. The key is recognise and reward contributions to the company's knowledge space.

Connect People

People like to create content that other people will use. People want to help each other; but people are more likely to help each other if they know each other. More importantly, the power of connections is illustrated by Andrew McAfee's theory about strong ties, weak ties and potential ties. Having a number connections, strong and weak mean that people can now reach out to other people whom they never knew, who have potential solutions to their problems. The ability of being able to reach out to an expert in Australia, when working in Brazil, is not just really useful its effective and exciting. The power of social and professional networking of the kind of Linkedin or Facebook is immense!

Don't police, let users moderate

Control is an illusion; 80% of learning already happens outside your 'control' spaces. Exposing this learning via social media provides options for influence: correcting, improving, extending. People already share bad information in very scary ways. The power of social media is in the fact that you can allow users to moderate each other. Think of users flagging content as inappropriate, or collaboratively editing content to remove inappropriate information. The wisdom of crowds is much greater than we can imagine. When we set more eyeballs looking at the content, we increase the ability to have useful content. Compare this to having just one moderator who has to verify that all content is appropriate. This is where the Wikipedia story makes so much sense.

Be a spider, harness the web

Lets face it, despite how useful your intranet is, people will still go to the Internet for many things. People will still write their blogs, tweet, publish to YouTube and use Slideshare. The good old saying is, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.". So if you can't beat the internet, its perhaps a good idea to aggregate user generated content off it. How about aggregating a user's Twitter feed, their blog, their Facebook status and their Linkedin profile onto their corporate profile. Combine this information with projects they've worked on, discussions they're part of and wiki pages they've authored, you've got very useful information contextualised in the right place! Information is power, intelligence is when you contextualise information. Combining information from the public internet with information from the intranet and then giving it the power of search can truly unleash the power of Enterprise 2.0.

There is of course the whole layer of viral marketing and evangelism that I've conveniently missed, but my guess is that a lot of organisations already do that and useful systems will market themselves. I'm quite excited by the prospects of Enterprise 2.0 and I love what I'm seeing as the visible impacts of such technology in the workplace. ThoughtWorks is soon launching its own Enterprise 2.0 consulting offering. If you'd like us to assist you with your Enterprise 2.0 plans, please get in touch with us to know more. And don't forget to post liberally on the comments section of this blogpost.


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