Enterprise 2.0 versus the truly social

I have this problem recently. Or maybe it’s not a problem. It’s hard to tell sometimes, and that is actually a part of the problem. I’m referring to the notions that have clustered around this idea of Web 2.0, and specifically to the aspect of this now known as Enterprise 2.0.

(Did you notice that sound? It seems every time I utter that phrase or write it down I hear faint and far away, like the tolling of distant bells in a country not my own, a murmur of cash registers opening. Enterprise 2.0. There it is, again.)

It’s not that I think it is a fraud. Not entirely. It seems very likely that certain kinds of social networking will migrate into common business usage in the future, and improve effectiveness in all kinds of ways. It’s just that I feel … well, the best way I can put it is that when I read some Enterprise 2.0 writing I find myself reminded of a movie directed by Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre. Do you know it? There are only two main characters: Andre who is a patrician, elegant refined intellectual of the theatre, and Wally who is a playwright/actor of humble means. They meet in a fancy New York restaurant for dinner. I hope you will forgive me for quoting a long passage from the movie’s transcript (legend has that it was mostly ad libbed).

ANDRE: You see, Wally, there’s this incredible building that they built at Findhorn. The man who designed it had never designed anything in his life; he wrote children’s books! And some people wanted it to be a sort of hall of meditation, and others wanted it to be a kind of lecture hall, but the psychic part of the community wanted it to serve another function as well. Because they wanted it to be a kind of spaceship which at night could rise up and let the UFOs know that this was a safe place to land, and that they would find friends there? So, the problem was–’cause it needed a massive kind of roof–was how to have a roof that would stay on the building but at the same time be able to fly up at night and meet the flying saucers? So, the architect meditated and meditated, and he finally came up with the very simple solution of not actually joining the roof to the building! Which means that it should fall off, because they have great gales up in northern Scotland. So, to keep it from falling off, he got beach stones from the beach, or we did, ’cause I worked on this building, all up and down the roof just like that, and the idea was that the energy that would flow from stone to stone would be so strong, you see, that it would keep the roof down under any conditions, but at the same time if the roof needed to go up, it would be light enough to go up! Well, it works, you see. Now, architects don’t know why it works, and it shouldn’t work, ’cause it should fall off, but it works, it does work: the gales blow and the roof should fall off, but it doesn’t fall off. [Pause. Coughing in the background.]

WALLY: Yep. Well, uh. D’you wanna know my actual response to all this? I mean, do you want to hear my actual response?


WALLY: See, my actual response, I mean…I mean…I mean, I’m just trying to survive, you know. I mean, I’m just trying to earn a living, just trying to pay my rents and my bills. I mean, uh…ahhh. I live my life, I enjoy staying home with Debby. I’m reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, and that’s that! I mean, you know, I mean, occasionally maybe Debby and I will step outside, we’ll go to a party or something, and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said, and…. And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook; I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands, then crossing them off the list!

And I mean, I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning! And no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight. I mean, I’m just so thrilled when I get up and I see that coffee there just the way I wanted it, I mean, I just can’t imagine how anybody could enjoy something else any more than that! I mean…I mean, obviously, if the cockroach–if there is a dead cockroach in it, well, then I just have a feeling of disappointment, and I’m sad.

But I mean, I just don’t think I feel the need for anything more than all this. Whereas, you know, you seem to be saying that it’s inconceivable that anybody could be having a meaningful life today, and you know, everyone is totally destroyed. And we all need to live in these outposts. But I mean, you know, I just can’t believe, even for you, I mean, don’t you find…? Isn’t it pleasant just to get up in the morning, and there’s Chiquita, there are the children, and the Times is delivered, you can read it! I mean, maybe you’ll direct a play, maybe you won’t direct a play, but forget about the play that you may or may not direct. Why is it necessary to…why not lean back and just enjoy these details? I mean, and there’d be a delicious cup of coffee and a piece of coffee cake. I mean, why is it necessary to have more than this, or to even think about having more than this. I mean, I don’t really know what you’re talking about. I mean…I mean I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.

[Excerpt sourced from here .]

I am just utterly in sympathy with Wally. I’ve spent close to the past year working on a software application, Xenos, which I believe does some very useful things and could really assist people using information in an organization. This is my equivalent of “and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful”.

“I know what you’re talking about, but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” That pretty much sums up my reading of many Enterprise 2.0 texts. To give you an example, here is an extract from Jeff Nolan’s blog Venture Chronicles.

Basically the entire RSS market has been built around a use mode of subscribe-then-read, and that is likely to continue as an exclusive model for many users or in parallel to other use modes. The weakness in this approach is that you only know what you know, as in you have [to] know about a feed before you can subscribe to it… and I generally work off the approach that it’s far more likely that the best content on any keyword is not necessarily found in my OPML.

There are an increasing array of companies that are working on a next generation of feed consumption use model, built not around the explicit subscribing of feeds and chronological consumption of content. In order for RSS to get to the next level of mainstreaming we have to think in terms of behavioral filtering of content and discovery of new content sources based on explicit preferences or inferred preferences derived from behaviors. This is exciting for me as a user.

I think one of the reasons why Techmeme has proven to be a consistent favorite is that this next generation model is partly how Gabe built the system. Through using Techmeme I am essentially outsourcing feed discovery to the service and consuming content not based on subscriptions but topics. As a users [sic], ordinary or power, I would like to have a personal Techmeme that delivers content based on my consumption habits, or put another way, my attention streams.

To further develop this model, I would like to see a social dimension develop that pushes up/down content based on a collaborative filter that takes into account my social graph and what they are consuming and rating, explicitly or otherwise. The problem with rating that we need to overcome is that a very small percentage of people will actually score content, so that’s why the attention streams become valuable, through activities they are effectively scoring content.

[Venture Chronicles: The Future of RSS]

Let me state clearly here that I am really not disparaging Mr. Nolan’s thoughts or writing. I do think, however, that we could express most of what is said above like this:

People are often unaware of good sources of information and good information. One way of ameliorating this would be to link them indirectly to the information used by people with whom they have close associations. This can be done both through overt links, such as tags placed by individuals, and by tracking what these associated people actually view and make use of.

These are truly useful thoughts, and I think that if most of us could access something like this today, we would make some use of it. However, I don’t think it is tremendously revolutionary. It’s a useful addition to the way people already work.

What is lacking from this specific text, and from many other Enterprise 2.0 texts (and this is a criticism) is some idea about how to implement such changes. Often there seems to be a kind of “Darwinian” suggestion: people will change/adopt new technologies, because if they don’t they will be left behind and their careers and livlihoods will suffer.

Anyone who has had any involvement with organizational change knows that is not the way it happens. Change happens because the people affected by the change manage at some stage in the process to start saying “yes” instead of “no”. For people managing and implementing change, getting to that “yes” is what their work is all about. You only get to “yes” when you have truly considered everything that the change will affect, which includes the practical, the emotional and the social. Sometimes you have to be tough, too, but that toughness is meaningless without a background of reasonableness.

Most of Enterprise 2.0 concentrates on the capabilities offered by a set of tools. It’s a little ironic that even as it pursues “the social” in terms of how these tools work, it seems to pass over “the social” in terms of how they are implemented. I think Douglas Engelbart had a far better idea (in the late1970s) of what Enterprise 2.0 might really be when he wrote:

A useful metaphor, “hill climbing.” Each knowledge organization has to relocate itself, upwards through gradient lines of new skills, knowledge, methods and roles; struggling against the constant gravitational drag of uncertainty, the reaction to newness, the fatigue from unusual new exertions and postures, the false starts and wrong turns — AND THE CLIMBING ENERGY CAN ONLY COME FROM WITHIN THE ORGANIZATION.

In my view, the only feasible approach involves an explicitly chartered, full-time, internal organizational unit whose main work is to facilitate the organization’s self-development. It provides planning, coaching in hill-climbing techniques, guiding, and general facilitation; but each of the other organizational units has to do its own scrambling and sweating to get its membership into a coherent new grouping up on the next level place.

There will have to be exploratory groups that are the first to establish themselves at new levels on new parts of the hill; theirs will be much more difficult transitions than for the following groups, and the larger organization has to subsidize these exploratory probes as a general expense within its whole-organization evolutionary costs.

“Prototype” efforts seem so important; and they can’t be done using minimal service systems. They have to be considered as an exploratory investment. And, consider that the process of conducting the first such prototype activities will constitute an exploratory investment in learning how to conduct prototype activities.

[“Evolving the Organization of the Future: A Point of View,” Douglas C. Engelbart, Proceedings of the Stanford International Symposium on Office Automation, March 23-25, 1980 (AUGMENT,80360,). ]

“Social” tools will likely be an important feature of future enterprises. But they are not a deus ex machina solution to any problems. The only “solution” is ongoing thoughtful consideration of problems, and the knowledge that persistent difficulties can only be solved by trying something new, and climbing that hill.

Where Xenos fits into this is that it is designed to augment the very good skills of key information workers who are employed, right now, in critical information tasks. It is an attempt to help them start climbing the next hill. And it’s my earnest hope that if I can encourage them to do this, they will assist me, indirectly or directly, in climbing my next hill.

That’s pretty much it, really. That, and the odd cockroach-free cup of coffee, and I’ll count myself lucky.



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