Does it take more than social software to become an Enterprise 2.0?

Artist: Vancso Zoltan
Artist: Vancso Zoltan

People in the technology world love creating new words. In fact, they are responsible for the most of the recent English language growth. Be it telephone, internet or crowdsourcing there’s always a new technology behind the new term. The techies have even managed to introduce their trade traditions into the mass conscience. When was the last time you used a sequence of dot-separated numbers to describe a large official organization? Yet all the talk about Government 2.0 doesn’t seem to surprise anyone. The lack of surprise however doesn’t imply shared understanding. Just try asking ten people who use the term Web 2.0 what exactly it means – and most likely you will get ten different answers.

Enterprise 2.0: A Great Concept Often Taken Backwards

Although 2.0 memes are everywhere, hardly any of them have generated as much controversy as Enterprise 2.0 (a.k.a. E2.0). Introduced by Andrew McAfee in 2006 and later expanded by others, the term seemed to be a slam dunk for a while. Forward-looking and fresh, it was (and still is) about application of social software and corresponding approaches in business. However, somewhere along the way something didn’t go quite right. Today, almost three years after the term’s introduction, there is more confusion about it than there was two years ago. Heated terminology discussions keep going on. Key players are on the quest to find and articulate ROI. And most curiously of all, many business decision makers who decide to dive into the E2.0 sea, often come back more confused than they were before taking that dive.

AIIM’s year-old survey, which found that 74% of surveyed organizations had no idea what E2.0 meant or how it could be meaningfully applied, likely would’ve come back with a similar numbers today. This time around, it also would’ve included people who looked at E2.0 tools only to get puzzled. If you work in or sell to enterprise IT you know what I’m talking about. More likely than not, you have your own example of “now what?” story. As in “So we’ve deployed internal blogs and wikis. Now what?” All of a sudden, software that seems to work so well for millions of people on the internet, fails to make any noticeable difference when used internally. All these stories have the same root cause: as of today, E2.0 is still primarily a vendor space, dominated by ISVs selling software to businesses who haven’t really asked for it. It is simply not a demand-driven market. By contrast, just think of CRM or payroll software. You don’t need to convince businesses they need that.

This is why E2.0 ROI discussion keeps going on like a never-ending story. A thirsty person doesn’t care about the ROI of buying a bottle of water – and even paying a premium for it. But try selling to him a cute new gadget – and you better have some very good supporting arguments on why it’s a smart way to invest a single cent. As enterprise customers look for cutting costs and streamlining processes, ISVs along with internal E2.0 champions often offer them what seems to be a miracle pill. It promises to make their workforces way more productive, their executives much more informed, and their customers happier. And, given the loud buzz around social, many companies do give it a try. Some like it. But some end up with a loud huh? Worse, some end up with an outraged response from the people who think it’s a wrong way to spend money (like an Oregon county’s chair who recently posted a 70K per year social media coordinator position). Why? Because, in a Benjamin Button fashion, many customers – often encouraged by enthusiastic sellers – think about E2.0 backwards, starting with tools instead of concentrating on specific business problems.

It Takes More than Social Software to Become an E2.0 Company

No one (okay, almost no one) expects that buying a word processor can turn him into a great writer. Yet somehow it’s almost widely assumed that deploying tools labeled E2.0 would turn an organization into an E2.0 business. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite all the buzz, E2.0 is first of all a set of principles, not software bits. It is more about business practices and human behaviors than about features. Software with strong social computing capabilities makes it much easier to establish and maintain these practices, but it doesn’t create them on its own, nor does it sustain them.

Social technologies have enormous potential, but to make E2.0 more than a hotly debated buzzword, many players in the space have to shift focus from cool capabilities to critical business functions. This applies to how E2.0 software is developed, how it is positioned, and how it is used. Despite catchphrases like “Facebook for the enterprise”, the much discussed consumerization of IT does not mean emulation of consumer experiences within the firewall. It means taking the concepts behind the amazing transformation of consumer space, and leveraging them to address real business needs. All businesses have to deal with things like customer support, supply chain management, R&D and product distribution. Who makes all these things happen? People. Now, what E2.0 is all about? In essence, it’s about people connections, just like any of its 2.0 siblings. And with the right focus, any business function can benefit from better connections.

There are enough success stories to support this claim. Marketing has already added social media to the must-have part of its portfolio. Customer support organizations have been experimenting with social tools – some quite successfully. Many R&D departments have already discovered that capturing knowledge in wikis can be more powerful than using traditional strict-workflow content management systems. Enterprises around the globe have been finding that Facebook-like employee profiles speed up internal communications. But we’ve just scratched the surface. Real gold is not in the technologies of today. It’s not even in applying the best of breed E2.0 tools correctly. It’s in solutions of tomorrow, designed to solve hard business problems through people-connecting technologies.

Now, there’s one little caveat with everything I’ve just described. Implemented right, social business software and practices have a potential to transform many business functions almost beyond recognition. In other words, they can be quite threatening to organizations that are built around existing processes and tools, and are not willing to evolve. But that’s the topic of another post…

Yuri is a new contributor to the FASTforward Blog – more about him here. This is the first post in the “Connected Enterprise” series. Topics to come: adoption, corporate walled gardens, and more

Artist: Vancso Zoltan
Artist: Vancso Zoltan
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