Web 2.0 in the Enterprise 2.0

By Elizabeth Bennett  |  Posted 07-13-2009

Web 2.0 in the Enterprise 2.0

In the last three years, businesses have been pummeled by a bevy of trendy technologies that marketers, analysts, employees and, yes, the media have deemed invaluable for the enterprise. These social media tools promise to connect disconnected workers, harness untapped, ingenious ideas and cultivate all manner of innovation-driving serendipity.

It's questionable whether information-sharing tools such as wikis, video podcasts and behind-the-firewall social networks are radically transforming organizational behavior---as the aforementioned parties would have you believe--or just helping organizations make better use of existing resources. However, companies have been experimenting heavily, and piloting both successful and unsuccessful projects, to understand how they're going to integrate these technologies into their operations in a way that makes business sense.

Some, like Dell, are endeavoring to expand successful localized projects across divisions, while others, like Cisco Systems and Booz Allen Hamilton, are graduating from individual tools and rolling out strategic companywide platforms. And the most successful projects have at least two things in common: They were built with a key business process in mind, and predicting their ROI was not part of the equation.

No Silver Bullet

No Silver Bullet

You'd be forgiven for thinking your company is late to the "Enterprise 2.0" party, but as it turns out, there is some evidence that the other guy is no further along than you are. A February study of 65 business and IT personnel conducted by IT research and consulting firm Burton Group found that such perceptions are unfounded. "While companies are taking a more strategic approach by thinking about platforms rather than tools, many organizations have not made an enterprisewide decision on social networking technology," says Mike Gotta, a principal analyst for Burton Group and author of the report. For those companies that have made inroads in the social media space, Gotta explains, most projects are still in the proof-of-concept or early stages of deployment.

And those projects--even extensive ones within large organizations---tend to lack a tidy business case. "ROI is hard to forecast and is often caught in the rearview mirror," Gotta says, meaning that ROI becomes clearer once the system is in place and being used. Moreover, Gotta says pretending that the return on these technologies isn't soft is just plain "silly."

Building an enterprise platform without a financial rationale may seem like folly, but it's still very common and will likely remain so, particularly in the area of social media. "Lots of organizations are putting their toe in the water but not understanding the financial impact," says Walton Smith, a senior associate at consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. "There is no silver bullet."

Smith would know, having helped dozens of clients in the public and private sectors develop and deploy interactive information-sharing tools and social media platforms. Smith also spearheaded his firm's own social networking Website called, cheerily, Hello.

Typically, consultants locate subject experts by e-mailing colleagues to ask if they have (or someone they know has) a certain professional specialty. That catch-as-catch-can technique is inefficient, says Smith, and doesn't allow others to learn from the exchange. By contrast, Hello's interface centers on employee profiles, and its search capacity extends to multiple directories, blogs, wikis and threaded discussions, making it easier to extract previously unconnected information.

Hunting down those unimpeachable nuggets amidst a riot of data is the holy grail of corporate social networks--and some dare to say they have found it.

Rebecca Jacoby, CIO at Cisco, has ushered in a slew of collaborative technologies that she says have transformed Cisco's operations. "This is beyond basic automation and productivity equations," Jacoby says. "We're using the technology to enable our growth strategy."

Cisco has built a Facebook-like application for finding subject-matter experts, a video wiki, an internal Wikipedia-like application and a mashup that quickly locates technical support staff. "We think collaboration technologies are the next group of technologies that allow you to really change business models," says Jacoby.

Culture Wars

Culture Wars

It's easy to imagine that a high-tech company like Cisco has a leg up in the emergent technology arena, but most firms face cultural barriers that impede adoption. Cisco, for its part, faced a highly skeptical group of engineers when it was still in the planning phase of its social media efforts.

And for organizations that have yet to implement even localized blogs and wikis, it's more likely a question of cultural issues than a lack of enthusiasm for new ways of sharing information, according to Marty Abbott, former CTO of eBay and a partner at AKF Partners Consulting, which advises companies it identifies as being on a "hyper-growth" trajectory. "My guess is that something in the company has killed those ideas," Abbott speculates. "The right focus is to find out why they haven't been implemented. It's very likely they were killed at the first level of management or because of some exhaustive budget process early on."

Projects get squashed for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the prevailing notion that surfing social networks and posting to blogs--internal or external--do not constitute "real work." Euan Semple, a London-based consultant who has worked with dozens of large companies on social software projects, says this disapproving attitude is increasingly being called into question. "People get stuff done through networks of people," Semple explains. "'Real work' for many people is writing a 40-page report that's stuck in a repository. This attitude is inhibiting companies from deploying more effective tools."

Then there's the fear that those publishing tools will emerge as digital soapboxes for disgruntled workers. Yes, says Semple, some will trip up, just as they did when e-mail was introduced, and the crowd they work with will say, "Hey, you're not playing by the rules."

The key, Semple advises, is mining the positive mess and noise, another concept antithetical to the typical large company. "Management has been about taking noise out of the system and looking manageable," he says. "But this environment is showing us you want noise and as much activity as possible. And you want tools that help you get a good signal-to-noise [ratio]."

For CIOs with a keen eye on security, all the cacophony can seem like a gateway to chaos. Making sure that tools work in concert with up-to-date and flexible privacy practices is top of mind for Robin Johnson, CIO of Dell. Security is paramount, Johnson says. "But you can't sit with a 3-year-old policy," he cautions. "You have to understand the risk profile and adapt."

Johnson says his role is to enable collaboration and exploit what's available to improve idea generation and intellectual property--safely. But sometimes, he says, that posture is out of sync with the openness these tools foster, creating another kind of clash: "Those with an audit or controls mind-set are unpopular."

Back to CIO Insight