The Rise of Enterprise 2.0

Andrew McAfee may have been a Web 2.0 skeptic before he coined the phrase “Enterprise 2.0” in 2006, but now he’s a believer. He makes the case in his long-awaited book, Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges (Dec. 1, Harvard Business Press). While collaborative tools like Twitter and Facebook have enjoyed astounding success in the consumer realm, McAfee makes a strong argument for their viability in the enterprise.

The book is written for business managers, but it contains important lessons for IT leaders. McAfee–a research scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management’s Center for Digital Business–says that while Web 2.0 tools vary in nature, they share certain aspects that have the potential to change the way business is done.

This transition won’t be simple for IT. There’s the usual hype that surrounds new or buzzy technological tools. And there are ongoing doubts over whether something deemed “social” can really work for business.

McAfee spoke about the challenges and opportunities for CIOs with CIO Insight Editor in Chief Brian P. Watson. What follows is an edited, condensed version of that discussion.

CIO Insight: You quote Nicholas Carr’s “IT Doesn’t Matter,” in which he says businesses shouldn’t overspend on IT and that IT should be “boring.” What do you think about that in light of all the Web 2.0 tools available?

McAfee: “Enterprise 2.0” is a bunch of really exciting technologies that are coming into the enterprise, and they hold out the promise for helping us with really important business goals. Everything I’ve seen tells me that companies are not going to be equal in taking advantage of these tools. That means there’s an opportunity for competitive differentiation and advantage.

So I think it’s a very exciting time in the world of technology, and I think the end result of these technologies entering the enterprise is that some companies will pull ahead and some will lag behind.

Too many technologies become hyped and don’t actually deliver any advantage.

McAfee: We all have the ability to acquire the raw materials of IT: hardware, software and networking. What we don’t all have is the ability to exploit those things–to convert the raw materials of IT into finished goods, into an infrastructure that provides business value and business insight that lets you tackle tough problems. That’s really hard to come by.

Not all companies are equally good at this. I’ve talked with a lot of management teams that are skeptical, that have security concerns, that are downright hostile to these ideas. Those companies are not going to be as successful with Enterprise 2.0 as will companies that embrace and are excited about this stuff.

When you first heard the term “Web 2.0,” you say you were a skeptic. What’s changed?

McAfee: When you hear technology claims, skepticism is the right initial attitude. When we hear any claim about a new product, do we automatically believe it? No–that makes us very naïve consumers. When I heard “Web 2.0,” I thought there’s likely not to be any “there” there. I thought this is probably just some flavor of marketing from the technology sector.

But if you’re a good skeptic, you test that hypothesis. The quickest way I could think of to do that with Web 2.0 was to look at Wikipedia. I had heard so much about it, and I thought it was destined to failure. These utopian, community-based experiences broke down because people with bad intentions usually show up and start to pollute the environment for everyone else.

I thought if this unpleasant dynamic exists, where would I see it first? So the first word I typed into Wikipedia was “skinhead,” because I thought that the peace-and-love skinheads would not get along with the racist, violent skinheads and that we’d see that disagreement play out in the Wikipedia article.

I was flat wrong. I found the entry and, half-an-hour later, realized I had read the single, best general reference piece about skinheads that I’d ever come across. I said to myself, “Something’s different here.”

A new combination of technologies, philosophies and approaches to collaboration is at work here. They are generating output in a way I wasn’t expecting, in a place I wasn’t expecting. So, instead of being skeptical, I became deeply curious and went off to try to understand what’s going on here.

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