Web 2.0 Seduces the Enterprise

Talk about disruptive technologies. Despite being widely available for only a few years, Web 2.0 tools, such as WYSIWYG blogging platforms, wikis, social networks, RSS and social bookmarking sites have had a tremendous impact on the way millions of people think about and use the Internet. The term “Web 2.0” itself didn’t enter the popular lexicon until 2004; two years later, Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee coined the term “Enterprise 2.0,” introducing the concept in a Spring 2006 MIT Sloan Management Review article entitled “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration.”

In each case, the terms and their meanings inspired immediate controversy. Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee has dismissed “Web 2.0” as “a piece of jargon,” arguing that the term could just as well describe the original Web functions, which enabled easy connections between people and information. Some argued strongly against an “Enterprise 2.0” entry in Wikipedia, saying that it was too much of a buzzword; the entry survived that debate, but has since been redubbed “Enterprise social software.” This entry itself may soon merge with an entry on “social computing.”

While these disputes appear, at first glance, to center largely on semantics, they’re emblematic of the seismic shift brought about by Web 2.0. Even the most technically disinclined users have to admit that the content creation and sharing tools clustered under the Web 2.0 rubric enhance and facilitate the Internet experience.

Who Wants To Collaborate?

McAfee refers to Web 2.0 applications generally as “emergent social software platforms.” This is a crucial, unusual, and perhaps defining phrase,” says McAfee, especially in the enterprise context. “I emphasize the word ’emergent’ because the new platforms are not trying to dictate to users how they should contribute, or what they should be saying in what format or what structure. Instead, the smart managers and the smart technologists are presenting something that’s pretty close to a blank slate, then trying to get out of the way of users and watch what emerges.”

McAfee believes that “Enterprise 2.0” — by which he simply means the use of “social software” or Web 2.0 tools inside of companies or between companies working together — has great potential to increase worker productivity. The adoption of this collaborative software is not inevitable, however. Senior executives are excited by the possibilities, McAfee notes. “Their job is to make the organization run better. They want all information that will help them do that.” But there’s active resistance at other levels.

Some of the hostility comes from a simple, but revelatory, difference between social software and traditional business software. The latter is about imposing order and structure throughout an organization, which is, of course, a necessity in many areas. The former imposes little or no structure and by definition lends itself, says McAfee, “to the appearance of unanticipated patterns and structure and content.” Unpredictability, understandably enough, makes lots of people nervous, especially if they have turf to protect.

Easier Than You Think

The fact is, says Forrester analyst Oliver Young, Web 2.0 tools make it easier for people to get things done. Interactions via e-mail and phone are relatively ad hoc and decentralized, he argues, while social software enables, “efficient interaction between people, content and data.”

Take RSS, for example. Often mistaken for another form of social software, RSS is actually an increasingly popular marketing tool. Companies can publish very specific information about new products, bug fixes and special promotions, and make it easily accessible to customers via RSS.

“Bringing the publish-and-subscribe paradigm of RSS into the enterprise has been one of the biggest hurdles,” Young says, in large part because IT departments are concerned with the technology’s security. RSS capabilities built into Internet Explorer 7 and Outlook, for example, don’t provide the kind of security that can be built into a dedicated feed reader. “There’s the potential that you’ll be opening yourself to viruses and spyware,” says Young, but quickly adds that this security concern is, right now, more theoretical than real.

Putting Web 2.0 To Use

Much of the above explains why Enterprise 2.0 is a lot like sex: everyone talks about it, most people think that others are doing it more, but in fact it’s very difficult to know what’s really going on inside the firewalls. Only a few major corporations have wholeheartedly embraced Enterprise 2.0 tools: McDonald’s and Northwestern Mutual each have built new Intranets upon platforms centered on customizable home pages, social networking capabilities, wikis, blogs, RSS and other Web 2.0 tools, but in most organizations, the tools are often being used in small groups or divisions. Dell’s support team has adopted wikis as a key tool for sharing solutions to customer problems, but it’s unclear how often other segments of Dell use wikis.

Blogs and wikis seem to be the most commonly used Web 2.0 tools in the enterprise, says Young, with RSS and social networking applications making some headway. This is likely to change soon, as Microsoft has added Web 2.0 pieces to SharePoint (basic blogging and wiki functionality) and other big players like IBM, SAP, Oracle and BEA are, says Young, “bringing these tools into the enterprise as part of the typical application upgrade.”

Young says that IBM, with Lotus Connections, has the most complete Web 2.0 suite and that although hard sales numbers haven’t been released, the company has “said anecdotally that they’re doing better than they’d hoped up to this point.”

These large, traditional enterprise software providers seem to be battling it out with scores of nimble Web 2.0 startups for business market share, but the most likely scenario, says Young, is that many smaller companies will provide discrete applications for, partner with and eventually be purchased by the bigger fish. The vast majority of CIOs want suites that will provide all of these tools and more, preferably in a one-stop shop scenario. Meanwhile, some examples of well-positioned small and specialized companies include SixApart for blogging; Atlassian Confluence and SocialText for wikis; Communispace for social networking; and NewsGator for RSS.

Web 2.0 tools will inevitably be ubiquitous within most enterprises, which will lead to fundamental changes in the way some business is conducted. This will be disruptive — but the familiar, major brand packaging, support and security, and the slow, piecemeal adoption of the available tools means we’re likely to look back on Enterprise 2.0 as less a revolution than a critical and natural step in IT evolution.