Clay Shirky: How the Enterprise Moves to 2.0

The consultant, author and professor says businesses are just beginning to understand the value—and challenges—of social technologies.
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It feels to me that IT departments are protecting their turf, perhaps out of fear that if anyone can handle this stuff, they could be out of a job.

Shirky: There's always turf protection, but I think the turf-protection model goes away in recessions because the job-protection model becomes much more important. If I don't cut costs, if I don't find some way to experiment with novel ways of producing value at very low cost, the effect could be much worse than my just losing a little bit of turf. So I think the era of getting additional value using social media is going to ride into most corporations, [but] not on the wings of some grand experimental vision. It's going to be people saying, "Our R&D budget just got cut 10 percent, how on earth can we get people continuing to think interesting thoughts, with less money?" A lot of this is going to move into the enterprise as a brute cost-cutting move.

Where do you see the most value for enterprise users of this software?

Shirky: One big thing that enterprises should know and often don't, especially large companies, is that the amount of collaborative value that can be tapped entirely among your own employees can be quite significant. For all the rhetoric about letting everything be open and free, there's a large pool of collaborative talent behind the firewall, and that's a really good place to look for coordinated value. The next bit of value created by your employees may be in ways that aren't about management directives, but about voluntary participation.

There's a great story out of IBM about a research group in Armonk and another in Cambridge, England, that discovered each other via a tagging system similar to [the popular consumer site] del.icio.us. They were looking at the same URLs and tagging them the same way. All of this information was behind the firewall. They contacted each other and said, let's work together. The only person above both groups in the hierarchy didn't know what the individual groups were doing, so their ability to find each other laterally across the hierarchy of the company could only have been produced with a tool that made those kinds of similarities available to everybody.

Collaborative value is in many ways the big surprise of this medium. It used to be that the costs of collaboration were high and the payoff was low. But with a medium that makes it almost effortlessly easy to create things like a community of practice as a side effect of people talking about things they think are important--that's a huge bundle of opportunity that's available to any company that manages information internally.

This article was originally published on 04-27-2008
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