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Enterprise 2.0 – A Few More Thoughts

After reading a few really interesting posts on Enterprise 2.0, this one by Om Malik and this one by Peter Rip (both of whom are two of my favorite bloggers), I would like to throw in a few additional thoughts on the topic. I agree with most of the commentary that many of the web 2.0 technologies we have seen in the consumer internet space (AJAX, tagging, lightweight integration, mashups, etc.) will impact the enterprise. However, I think it will take a really long time and will develop in a slightly different way. Given my experiences with enterprises, I would like to make two contentions about how web 2.0 concepts will play out in the enterprise.

Selfishness rules in the enterprise
There have been lots of technologies that were supposed to revolutionize how people work. Collaboration technologies. Knowledge management. Best practices. Many of these technologies have failed because the benefits of participation accrue to the group more than to the individual. I don’t want to generalize about all white collar workers, but I feel that it’s safe to say that most people are motivated to use tools for two reasons. First, their job is directly tied to the use of the tool whether they find it useful or not. Second, they derive some tangible productivity benefit from using this technology, regardless of what benefits accrue to the organization as a whole.

My hunch is that this is why technologies like wikis, as useful as they are, are still fighting the battle to prove their worth inside the enterprise. Sure, wikis are tremendously useful for small workgroups or project teams as the benefits to the individual and the group are both meaningful. I think it will be a hard battle for wikis to get over the hump but I do think it will happen.

A more attractive app that I think could gain real traction would be to take a de.li.cio.us-like tagging concept and couple it with a very powerful search platform (hopefully a Google Search Appliance or Google Mini). Why do I think this would work? Well, for starters, one of the big challenges for products like de.li.cio.us and digg is that they are susceptible to gaming and abuse. Such is the price for success in an open world. However, thing are very different inside of the enterprise. Presumably, there is much less concern about spam and erroneous tagging. Also, with more browser-based apps, employees are spending more time in the browser interface and it’s just natural to bookmark those sites that are most useful throughout the course of the day. Combining a simple tagging/bookmarking service with robust search capabilities could make corporate intranets much more useful without a huge change in user behavior.

On the flipside, there are lots of other concepts that I think will be harder to execute. Touching ERP systems, HR systems, and other legacy applications will be hard as those systems are always difficult to modify. Sure, web services will make it easier (in theory) to expose the data from these systems into more friendly interfaces, but that just sounds like a long road to success. The people who use and manage those systems have a great deal of say about what will and will not be implemented.

The driving force or forcing function will be the fear of private data ending up on public places
Most IT departments I have met tend to respond most quickly when they feel that they are losing control over some key platform. I would argue that VPNs have been so widely deployed because they are cheap, easy to manage, and that most IT departments know that employees will use workarounds (forwarding email to outside accounts, storing documents on flash drives, installing remote access programs, etc) if there isn’t a good, sanctioned alternative available. The counterexample is IM. Because most corporations were late to implement some kind of corporate IM, most people had standardized on using outside products and weren’t (or haven’t) been willing to switch.

My belief is that the fear of private corporate data ending up on public services will be what motivates IT departments to pay attention to web 2.0. Take the corporate calendar. Almost any web 2.0 calendar (Google Calendar, 30 boxes, AirSet, etc) is better and more flexible than what the typical enterprise user has. If that continues to be the case, some users will start putting their calendar information out on these services. Ditto on email. There are a lot of email programs that are as good if not better than Outlook. Some users will make use of these services/products to store, search, and archive important emails that they want to be able to access. Who knows what will happen when and if web-based storage products come to market — that will enable a whole new ability for users to easily store corporate information out in the cloud.

With the threat of SOX and other compliance issues being top of mind, I don’t think that enterprises will be slow to act here. If there are use cases where it’s clear that users are (or could be) storing sensitive data outside of the enterprise, I expect that they will act swiftly. Shutting down access to these services will be hard. I hope that IT departments respond by embracing what their users want in terms of interfaces and functionality and stay on the leading edge. Giving users what they want will be easier than keeping them away from the services they find useful.