Denial is a river full of crocks.

by Gil Yehuda on August 31, 2009

in Enterprise 2.0

I read Dennis Howlett’s recent blog post “Enterprise 2.0: what a crock“. He’s right and wrong. Let me explain via a story that I read in Noah benShea‘s book Jacob the Baker, many years ago (Note: I like to keep this blog focused on business — but I read a lot and feel I have much to learn from everyone, so I’m drawing insight from this story because I think the message is applicable, not because I want to introduce spirituality here.) I’ll summarize the story from memory.

A man has a vision and he follows it. He follows his vision for many years and he is fulfilled by it. Others see that he is on a journey and is happy, so they join him. He continues on his journey, as do his followers. Over the years his followers have children. One day the children ask their parents to describe what they see. The parents can only describe the coattails of a great man. The children, who are now grown up, leave the group; they see no value in following a vision of coattails.

What results from this are parents who follow a vision that is not theirs, and children who reject a vision they never even knew.

The denial on the part of the children is perfectly fair, and yet flawed. From their perspective, their parents are misguided. After all, why should one spend their life following coattails. There’s no value there. They are right because they are rejecting the vision of coattails. What about the parents who follow the great man? Are they wrong for being followers? The story implies their failing is one of omission, not commission. They do no wrong act by following a great person with a great vision. But they failed to see their own vision, and this only becomes apparent when it comes time to explain their lives to their children. And then it becomes clear that they were not on a journey worth following, since they never really internalized a vision of their own.  Note: no one denies the first person with the vision should pursue it.

Dennis is correct. If your E2.0 guru is describing coattails, then reject it. I don’t believe in false idols either. Setting up a wiki or a blog does not mean that you have “done E2.0″. It just means that you set up a wiki or a blog.

Dennis reveals his understanding of E2.0 in his final  question. “…can someone explain to me the problem Enterprise 2.0 is trying to solve?”  It is here that I understood Dennis is denying the coattails.  And I agree with the implicit answer — “Enterprise 2.0 is not trying to solve anything.”

Why do I say that?  Because I don’t believe “Enterprise 2.0″ is a solution, I believe it is a description.  I agree with the bold statement in Sameer Patel’s post: Enterprise 2.0 is a state that Enterprises achieve by employing an appropriate set of social computing concepts. I word it my way: “Enterprise 2.0 describes a transformed organization.” If your organization uses social computing technology and that has transformed your organization’s nature — then describe that as a new kind of organization — one that has been inspired by the analogous change that we see in the Web.  It is in vogue to call that “2.0” — as a way to indicate that it’s new (and perhaps improved).  Just like Web 2.0 does not mean that all Web 1.0 is gone (or bad), Enterprise 2.0 does not prescribe that all organization must transform themselves into social guilds.  The simplistic characterization that adding “social” to a business is 1. the most vital priority to all business, or 2. should and will transform them from hierarchical (think: bad) command and control to social (think: good) friendly places is indeed naive.

But it is too easy to make the mistake and reject a real vision you never knew. Some organizations have the need to reform their information infrastructure, and many have found success by leveraging comparable technologies and behaviors that have already demonstrated transformative capabilities in the consumer Internet.  Done well, an organization can find great benefit pursuing the Enterprise 2.0 vision, and many have.  But not all businesses have to pursue the same vision — and that does not make Enterprise 2.0 a crock.

Dennis makes many true statements, and is critical of many things that I think deserve scrutiny.  So I agree with him in the same way I agree with the second generation of followers who reject what their parents are doing.  His argument is solid, and his examples of innovation in the auto and pharma industries are relevant.  And yet, his post provides no vision worth following. He succeeds at revealing his feelings about the topic, and fails at a compelling “so what?”.  Recall the story above — the parent follow the great man with the vision (for better or worse), but no one follows the children.  They offer nothing to follow.

For many, the information workplace is broken.  Corporations spend a lot of money on intranet technology, and workers find that they have a more productive technical environment on their home computer — as long as they can get to their Web 2.0 applications. Corporate information is expensive to manage, shared repositories don’t work well, information is easily lost and fragmented, enterprise search rarely works the way we want it to, knowledge is not easily transferred from one person to another, job transitions are hard, file systems are clogged, and email folders and mismanaged.  Many companies have a real problem that they are unwilling to deny.  IT expenditures are not yielding desired results.  This may not be the highest priority issue today.  But workers will find a way around poor intranet tools to get their work done.  And that can result in greater problems tomorrow.

Some of the vendors who provide software addressing these needs can help organizations solve real problems. That’s not a crock.  If you are just getting a tool and hoping that problems go away, we’ll that’s just foolish. We all agree that fools are foolish.

Whether you take a planned and thoughtful approach to solving information problems or not, workplaces evolve as they adopt tools and behaviors inspired by social computing.  But will it do it in a sustainable way? Vendors are introducing social tools in mainstream packages, and workers are using the tools with or without IT sanction.  Are they using the right tools?  Will they integrate with other corporate fixtures?  Will they conflict with each other?

The vision that I discuss with my clients has much more do to with being deliberate and thoughtful about managing the information flow in their businesses — and using social computing where it can effectively address a need. My clients typically face a choice:

  1. Do nothing and let chaos ensue
  2. Do something and hope they get it right the first time
  3. Leverage expertise in this area to help them find a path to their success.

Organizations have needs.  Many employ the help of experienced IT pros and consultants to help envision and pursue solutions.  Although some might be selling visions of coattails, I find that many organizations are smart enough to figure out who is the “real deal”.

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