Web 2.0 Meets Enterprise 2.0

Updated: April 30, 2009

If Web 2.0 emphasizes the interactive aspects of new web technology, Enterprise 2.0 applies the same technologies to the workplace. Wikis, blogs, video, user-generated content and other Web 2.0 technologies can help staff build relationships and work together effectively.

The term Enterprise 2.0 has its own Wikipedia entry, but the definition is still under debate. According to Gartner analyst Tom Austin, many experts question whether the term warranted its own definition, because the 2.0 trend has been so overused. He compares the phenomenon to the early 1990s, when the letter "E-" was tacked on to so many mundane topics -- like "E-Commerce" and "E-Bankruptcy."

But Austin doesn't discount Enterprise 2.0 entirely. "This is about certain new principles on the Web," he said.

One of these guiding principles is that the technologies are easy to use. Users can socialize without worrying about the underlying infrastructure.

"The basic level of IT you need to start doing E2.0 is not high," said Andrew McAfee, an associate professor of Harvard Business School, who blogs on Enterprise 2.0 trends. "You or I could fire up a wiki today, we can start blogging today, and we can fire up a Google doc or spreadsheet and invite colleagues."

The benefits are many, from encouraging social interaction and team building, to enhancing productivity.

"You can foster social relationships with technology," said Austin. "And there is real business value, in terms of speeding decision making and so on."

"If you blog internally, you can find out if someone else in company is interested in same things you are," McAfee suggested. "If you do tagging behind a firewall , you can get idea of what others are working on. If you set up a prediction market, you can get accurate predictions of how many units are going to sell next quarter."

The Shift to Collaboration

According to Austin, just under 10 percent of Gartner clients are now using wiki tools, because they have heard that it's a successful way of creating content efficiently. Companies both large and small are starting to offer collaboration tools in many forms, and Gartner recently published a report highlighting 39 of the market players, including SocialText, IBM, Microsoft, SixApart and many more.

"The market is still in its early stage," Austin said. "It's not yet consolidated and there is lots of opportunity."

Managers can choose from purchased and premise-based tools, hosted services, and even free tools like Google Docs, blogs and wikis. McAfee believes that what's important is how the tools are used by staff, rather than how they are implemented. From a manager's standpoint, it's irrelevant whether the tools are on company servers or outsourced, he said.

He recommends that companies make it easy for employees to use the tools that work best for their needs, and don't try to ban certain technologies because of security or other concerns.

"Everything we do to make it more difficult is just going to encourage people to stick with email," he said. "They're not going to use what we spend a lot of money on. They're going to use what they find easiest and most straightforward."

An effective communication tool can also help people communicate more naturally within the organizational heirarchy.

"When you take away the constraints that old systems enforce on people, particularly for internal uses, you find it's much more productive when people behave as far as social conventions, and that's what wikis do," said Austin.

McAfee adds that the tools can help elicit useful suggestions from unlikely suggestions. "What we see from open- source communities is that all kinds of people have ideas to contribute," he said.

He was quick to add that opening new communication channels won't threaten the existing hierarchy. "Not that R&D labs have become irrelevant or that they will be threatened by receptionists and payroll clerks," he said.

Competitive Advantage

It might be hard to measure how successful collaboration tools might be, but as the trend toward Enterprise 2.0 picks up, some companies who effectively use the technology may pull ahead in the marketplace, according to McAfee.

"I'm not going to say, do Enterprise 2.0 in the next quarter, or you'll be out of business," McAfee said. "But a company [who doesn't use the tools] might find their rival seems to become aware of challenges and opportunities faster, and interacts with customers in better and different ways."

Austin believes that collaboration tools are more effective in certain kinds of industries. "Collaborative and creative industries can be significant beneficiaries," he said.

The Evolving Marketplace

According to McAfee, many analysts didn't even see the Web 2.0 trend coming, and they have a limited ability to see how the Enterprise 2.0 trend will mature.

Austin believes that a central feature of the new marketplace is how it will evolve on its own, without a central authority choosing how technology develops. "If you have one billion experiments bubbling, there will be all sorts of unexpected consequences," he said.

A couple of years ago, Austin said, users were all on AOL or Friendster. Now, they're on MySpace and Facebook . But analysts can't predict which social network will take off next.

McAfee is interested in how the new tools will allow certain collaboration patterns to evolve publically. He cites de.li.cious as an example -- users can enter whatever tags they like, and over time, certain tags will become common.

"We're not imposing structure on who collaborates with whom, or what the workflow looks like," McAfee said. "You get a huge amount of structure even though none of it is dictated up front."

"Developers should get out of the way and let that structure emerge," he said.

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