November 8th, 2006
The first workshop session that I attended today focused on “Enterprise 2.0″ — i.e., the use of emerging (Web 2.0) technologies as a freeform mechanism for collaboration and getting their jobs done. The session moderator was Paul Kedrosky, who began the session by observing that collaborative tools have been around forever, and that aside from email and Lotus Notes, most of it hasn’t worked. So why should we think it will work now? Four other panelists chimed in with comments, but only one of them — Ross Mayfield, CEO of SocialText – was on the printed agenda, and on the Web 2.0 conference website. So I may well have misspelled the names and corporate affiliations of the other panelists, which annoys me: you’d think that with an audience of 1,400 people spending $2,000+ per seat, the conference organizers could have managed to deal with relatively simple details like this.
Anyway, I think one of the other panelists was a very articulate gentleman named Avi Briant, though I didn’t manage to write down the name of his company. Arghh! He said that Enterprise 2.0 addresses traditional enterprise-related tasks, which has traditionally been carried out by various systems, applications and tools foisted upon us provided to us by the IT department. Now, he says, we’re trying to help people do a better job of suberting IT, which they’ve been doing for some time anyway (old-timers will remember a similar battle when client-server technology was introduced in the early 1990s, and when PC’s were introduced in the early 1980s). In today’s world, there are enterprise-related Web 2.0 tools and services, which are being marketed as if they were consumer products, so employees can pick them up and use them without getting official permission from the IT department.
Ross Mayfield commented that his company, SocialText, is roughly four years old, and that it’s wiki-oriented tools are intended to be as easy to use as e-mail. As such, he suggested that Enterprise 2.0 will be associated with tools that don’t get in people’s way. Another panelis, Mike McDermott (whose name I may or may not have written down correctly), talked about his company, Freshbooks, which provides online billing services for small companies. Freshbooks apparently provides simple metrics to its customers (e.g., how long does it take a customer to pay a bill?) that can effectively raise the IQ of the group using their tools; as such, he suggests that Enterprise 2.0 applications can leverage the behavior of people using the applications. On a simplistic level, that makes a lot of sense: if I had a better idea of how other people were using, say, tools like Excel and Word and Powerpoint, it might help encourage me to improve in areas where my own usage of those tools is weak. Paul Kedrosky (who, alas, appears to have no Wikipedia article describing his many exploits) articulated this nicely by saying that Enterprise 2.0 tools can extract metrics from what people are really doing in the pursuit of their day-to-day jobs (as opposed to what they say they do, or what their bosses say they should be doing), and feeding it back to them, to they can better understand what they’re doing, and compare it against others in order to improve what they’re doing.
The final panelist, whose name may or may not have been Jeff Mulligan, and whose company may or may not be called “Techlo” (there’s a Japanese art vendor with the website address of www.techlo.com, but that’s not who I saw on stage this morning) said that his company’s visual composition environment “enables people to build applications based on what they do, and how they do their jobs.” He noted that while some forms of employee-to-employee collaboration is based on formally-defined business processes, a great deal of it is ad hoc — which is the area I think his company and its tools are focusing on.
After several of these opening comments and statements, the floor was opened up to questions; and most of the questions from the audience had to do with issues of security, privacy, and control. The kind of ad hoc, grass-roots, bottom-up, collaborative tools the panelists were talking about were viewed as a threat by many participants, especially those who work for accounting/auditing firms, financial institutions, firms that have been overwhelmed with Sarbanes-Oxley (each of whom has either retired, or opted not to run for reelection, for whatever that’s worth) regulations. Several members of the audience said they worked for companies that did not allow their employees to use hosted email services such as Google-mail or Yahoo-mail; and in response to a request from Paul Pedrosky, about 10-20% of the audience members thought these restrictions would become even more severe in the next 5 years.
But someone else in the audience stood up and said there are 90 million small businesses (a number I can’t confirm or rebut) small businesses that do not have these restrictions or regulations. And I think that’s a key point: if I were running a small business today, competing against a Fortune 500 firm, I would be thrilled to learn that their employees were restricted, constrained, and generally hamstrung by such rules, regulations, and paranoia. Sure, security and privacy issues are important, and we should all act responsibly. But there’s also an a fundamental issue of trust and professionalism: if I’ve hired a bunch of misbehaving idiots, I’m not sure that even the most stringent Sarbanes-Oxley regulations are going to prevent them from wreaking havoc. And if I’m a small firm that has managed to hire competent, professional, trustworthy employees, I would like to empower them to act in a professional and responsible fashion, yet with as much freedom and flexibility as possible. And chances are that my employees will be so much more productive than my big-company competitors that it will offset whatever advantages their size would otherwise provide.
Paul Pedrosky then moved on to the issue of “adoption, and asked if Enterprise 2.0 tools and services were being “smuggled” in to large companies; if so, he asked whether such a strategy is likely to be sustainable, and whether it will continue in this fashion for the foreseeable future. Ross Mayfield responded by saying that, at least in his world, things have moved beyond the grass-roots, single-user adoption, and that companies are now trying to figure out how to standardize and support things like wikis and blogs. Paul asked how centralized IT departments can do this in a top-down fashion without killing the atmosphere of innovation and being perceived as harmful. There was a lot of discussion about this, but I didn’t sense a consensus.
Finally, Paul asked the panel and the audience which vendors and businesses are likely to be helped by Enterprise 2.0, and which ones will be hurt — if not directly, then perhaps indirectly, as in the case of victims of a drive-by shooting. There was some consensus that data aggregators like Dun & Bradstreet might be hurt by vendors like Freshbooks, who aggregate and share data for free. Someone else argued that small developers and systems integrators (EDS, IBM Global Sevices, CSC, etc.) will be hurt, for there will be less need for them to build custom applications if end-users can do it themselves. Someone suggested that vendors like Jigsaw (which I visited in August; see “Jigsaw: Wikipedia Meets Hoover’s Online” for my report) will do well, and that Microsoft is doing a good job transitioning into this new world. Someone else said that Zimbra would benefit (see “Web 2.0 email for grownups: Zimbra’s open-source web-based collaborative email with mashups“), but nobody mentioned Google. And, as Paul Pedrosky noted when closing the session, nobody mentioned The Long Tail.
All in all, it was an interesting session.