Enterprise 2.0 and you

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McAfee's blog

Enterprise 2.0 toolkit

An Enterprise 2.0 toolkit contains one or more of the following social-networking tools for quickly sharing information and ideas:

  • AJAX: Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language helps users create interactive Web applications.

  • Blog: Writers post entries that are stored chronologically, somewhat akin to stream of consciousness. Blogs are open so everybody has access to the same information. Bloggers also elicit comments.

  • Folksonomy: In this practice, social-networking users categorize
    and tag Web content.

  • RSS feed: Really Simple Syndication is software that lets users read frequently updated content such as news headlines or blog posts. RSS feeds free users from having to visit a variety of sites. Instead, information comes to them.

  • Wiki: A wiki is a platform that lets users collaboratively edit content. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, is the best-known example.

— Florence Olsen

Andrew McAfee, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, studies the potential uses and effects of Web 2.0 technologies. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on Enterprise 2.0 and is widely credited with coining the term, which refers to the use of social-networking software to solve business and government problems. Federal Computer Week reporter Ben Bain interviewed McAfee about how Enterprise 2.0 has lowered the cost and increased the efficiency of sharing ideas and information.

FCW: How does Enterprise 2.0 differ from Web 2.0?

McAfee:Web 2.0 means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I haven’t heard one commonly agreed-on definition of it. Some people think it has to do with making the browser more interactive. Some think it has to do with social software and/or social software that is subject to network effects. Some people think it has to do with how software is developed in open-source communities. It’s a very useful term, but it seems to mean a lot of different things. When I talk about Enterprise 2.0, I always start by stressing my definition, which is that it’s the use of emergent social software platforms inside organizations or across organizations that are close partners.

FCW: Is there a difference in how a government agency, specifically a federal government agency, might use some of these tools compared with how a business would, for example?

McAfee: Every organization has its own unique mission, culture, norms, skill sets, and that’s where things are going to vary. But I don’t think there is any huge divide between the public and private sectors. People in the public sector need to collaborate and get stuff done and share information and innovate just like they do in the private sector.

FCW: Are there issues that all of these agencies and organizations confront that these tools can help with?

McAfee: Every organization that I talk to, especially as they get bigger, the people in charge of them say that information becomes a big problem, that knowledge capture and knowledge sharing is a huge problem, that collaboration seems to be kind of stop-and-start and takes place largely via e-mail. Even though no one loves that tool, we keep using it.

FCW: On your blog, you discuss the benefit of weak ties. Could you expand on that?

McAfee: If I ask my close colleague a) can you help me with this? or b) what people can you tap into?, I’m likely to know a lot of that stuff already. When you compare that to someone I know less intently — with whom I interact less frequently, whom I see less frequently or whom I collaborate with on a more sporadic basis — one of the great strengths of that person is that they are very likely to know stuff that I don’t know and to have a network to know people that I don’t know, so that their information is very likely to be nonredundant with mine.

FCW: Who are the weak ties in the government model?

McAfee: The weak ties for any knowledge worker are the people that they reach out to for any reason because they think they might be good people to know.

FCW: You talk about the idea of the great decoupling or, as you characterize it, the sharp fall in the cost of data dissemination. Can you explain that?

McAfee: If you could map out the information flows of a big organization 50 years ago, they’d look like a funnel with the point at the top and a lot of branches down underneath. In a sense, you could look at the whole company as a big information processing or transfer device designed to put the right information in front of people who had to make important decisions. One of the reasons you designed the information flows that way is that they were comparatively expensive. One of the things that’s happened in the era of the Internet is that you really don’t need to think about being stingy with amassing information and certainly with sending it from place to place. That’s what I mean by the great decoupling.

FCW: What does this do to the traditional governmental hierarchy and management structure?

McAfee: It doesn’t automatically mean that we need to start moving all decision rights down in the organization or that we should automatically move the decisions around so that they follow the new information flows. I don’t think that’s a smart thing to do. But you want to put the decisions in the hands of the people who are best-suited to make them.

FCW: If Enterprise 2.0 tools take hold and social networking continues to grow, how might that change our republic and how decisions are made in the United States?

McAfee: I sincerely doubt that any new technology toolkit is by itself going to make us change the structure of the republic, or that we are going to say, “Hey, wait a minute. We can do countrywide referenda pretty easily,” or that we can put a prediction market out there and give every citizen the right to trade in it, and we are going to let that make important policy decisions or decide on legislation in the United States. I don’t see that happening. We’ve had tools to do referenda for a long time, and they are still pretty sparsely used, so I don’t think the technology in this case is going to force any big change in the way our democracy is structured.

FCW: You refer to wisdom of the crowds. Do these new tools make people smarter?

McAfee: We have a much better toolkit to harness the wisdom of crowds or to help the crowd be smart instead of dumb. One of the things you don’t want is for the lowest common denominator to take over, [or for] the crowd to turn into a mob, or something like that. But what we see with things like Wikipedia and prediction markets is that we have technology platforms where huge numbers of people are coming together, interacting largely as equals — at least initially as equals — very decentralized, very egalitarian, and you can get some really good answers. I find that a fascinating development, very encouraging as well.

FCW: The World Bank’s Consultative Group to Assist the Poor has identified technology as a key to development. Taking a look at some of the Enterprise 2.0 tools that are so technology dependent, is it possible that, if applied in certain kinds of environments where only elites have access to those tools, it could actually have the opposite effect on society?

McAfee: It’s true that to do Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 you are going to need access to an Internet-connected computer, but essentially that’s all you are going to need access to, and it’s getting cheaper and cheaper to provide Internet-connected computers in almost any part of the world. Once you do that, you put that community on the global grid, and in particular with all these new tools, you are giving people a voice on the global grid.

FCW: How do managers or politicians — people who are at the top of the pyramid — walk the line between opening up and giving away the house when they start using these tools?

McAfee: The first thing that they have to get comfortable with is that they are in one sense giving up the house when they deploy these tools, and what they are doing is becoming OK with the fact that they are not in control of the platform anymore. They’ve given up control of the intranet. And if you think about it, the official hierarchy of the company has had complete control up to this point. If you do Enterprise 2.0, that’s just no longer the case. The conversations and the content and the linkages that get formed and everything about the Enterprise 2.0 portion of the intranet is not under the control of any one central authority — that’s the point. That’s the first thing that an executive needs to get comfortable with.

The second thing is what role do [executives] play if they are not the ones defining everything anymore? The bosses of an organization have a huge role to play. They might lead by example, they might coach and encourage, they might signal what is good behavior and bad behavior, and they might provide cover for the initial experiments of the people who are contributing.

FCW: Is there the potential for some of these e-government or Enterprise 2.0 tools to have an effect on the way the federal system is set up, in that it will actually speed up the process rather than slow it down?

McAfee: You can certainly gather knowledge and gather information a lot more quickly. You can certainly get your points out there a lot more quickly, and you can stay on top of what’s happening a lot more efficiently because when something happens in the world, it shows up in the blogosphere very, very quickly. You can use the blogosphere to stay on top of anything that’s of interest to you. It probably means that we should deliberate at least as long about it, but a lot of the inputs of that deliberation process are going to be quicker and easier to acquire.

FCW: How do you get policy-makers to take a step back and deliberate when all of the tools are capable of doing everything so quickly?

McAfee: The tools are capable of doing everything fast, except thinking about stuff, which is still why we need editors and elected representatives and all the people who sit on top of the sea of content and help figure out what it means. That world does not go away in the Web 2.0 or the Enterprise 2.0 world.

FCW: Whether it’s the corporate world or the federal government, how big of an effect are these Enterprise 2.0 tools going to have?

McAfee: They are going to have a big effect in some organizations and small to no effect in some organizations. If a company wants to ignore this or wants to clamp down on it or stop it from happening, they can. They have control over their intranet, and there are all kinds of ways to signal that doing this is a bad thing in this company. I get back a huge range of reactions to the ideas, and that tells me that companies are going to have hugely different outcomes in the face of these technologies. One of the theories about technology is that it tends to homogenize stuff. I don’t think that’s true. Overall, technology tends to sharpen differences among organizations, and I think the Enterprise 2.0 toolkit is absolutely going to sharpen differences.
FCW: Will the companies that don’t participate fall behind, or is it possible that some agencies or organizations will never have to get involved?

McAfee: There are many different ways to maintain your value in the world, and not all of them depend on Enterprise 2.0. One of the things that I don’t really like about technology enthusiasts is that we have this tendency to say, “Here is the latest, greatest thing. You have to do it now, or you are going to be road kill.” I haven’t seen much evidence of road kill. I don’t want to be the latest person to say, “Here is my favorite technology toolkit. Do this, or you will be extinct.” But if you are not interested in at least experimenting with the new modes of collaboration and knowledge capture and knowledge sharing and innovation in capturing collective intelligence, why not?


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