The Sum Of All Fears: The Social Business Naysayers

My old friend Dennis Howlett revels in the role of doubting Thomas, perhaps more than anyone I know. His most recent screed has been attacking the Enterprise 2.0 meme, and by implication, those that are espousing it. His initial foray was entitled Enterprise 2.0: what a crock, and he basically attacked the notion that E 2.0 has anything going for it.

Personally, I find Howlett’s argument unconvincing, but then I look at it differently. In my experience (and I have been working the field long before E 2.0 came about) metaphors are lies, since they overemphasize some characteristics and leave out others. I don’t expect metaphors to be ‘true’, just to create insight.

Enterprise 2.0 has been a simple and useful metaphor that assumes that Web 2.0 technologies (like contemporary social media, social networking, social tools, and the underlying set of technologies that make up the Web 2.0 model: open source stack (LAMP), web as a platform, open APIs, and so on) can be beneficially applied in the enterprise context. This means the eventual displacement of various enterprise technologies and business practices by new ones, strongly influenced by what is happening and working in the open (not enterprise) web.

Howlett’s post caused a minor stir in the E 2.0 corner of the galaxy, including a response from me:

[via Social Business: Why The ‘Enterprise 2.0′ Moniker Is Wrong]

Dennis Howlett recently stated that Enterprise 2.0 is a crock, basically making the case that the knowledge management-ish arguments in support of E 2.0 don’t gibe with the way companies actually have to operate, what their drivers are, or what problems confront them. Andy McAfee responded with a not particularly brief or convincing response, stringing together a number of very narrow use cases — like bringing new hires up to speed, or internal prediction markets — and stating that since these problems exist, and since various solutions to those problems are being herded together as Enterprise 2.0ish applications, therefore Enterprise 2.0 is a good thing, worthy of our attention.

I did find a few points that arose directly from Howlett’s posts and the resulting debate at the Enterprise 2.0 conference interesting:

  • A great deal of the discussion around E 2.0 has gotten bogged down in adoption arguments based on premises tied to pre-Web 2.0 values. The question of how and who should be using social media within businesses or to reach from a business to its customers or markets has been going on for years, to little result. Opposition in the form of endless demands to ROI, pilot studies, and analysis of results goes on, and meanwhile social media is so rapidly evolving that the planning that started a year ago is now totally outdated.
  • The functional view of Enterprise IT types, like Howlett, is based on a world neatly partitioned into CRM, ERP, and other functional domains. They are used to this model, much of today’s software is based on this approach, and the hows and whys of new webby models for software and business processes don’t line up neatly with the nicely square boxes on the systems analysts’ graph paper.

As I wrote back in September in that same response:

[via Social Business: Why The ‘Enterprise 2.0′ Moniker Is Wrong]

I think something more significant is at work, and those things called Enterprise 2.0 form only one bit of this bigger whole. The world in which work exists has changed fairly drastically in recent years, and so we are seeing a fundamental reset in the nature of work. On a secondary level, this translates into changes in how people communicate, coordinate, and collaborate, and this, then, leads to changes in information technology and related practices. Note, however, that talking about the secondary effects of these global business and
social changes in and of themselves is, from my point of view, not a very illuminating exercise at the best, and at the worst, completely misleading.

In a way, you could interpret Denis’ polemic as making a similar point, but I don’t think that his perceptions are based on the sense of a sweeping change in the world of business, but rather the views that the timeless nature of business operations have nothing to do with
knowledge management.

Howlett’s grumping is just some context for my point: ‘Enterprise 2.0′ is a not particularly useful characterization of what is going on with the spread of Web 2.0 technologies and practices in the world of business.

Note that I am a strong advocate for the use of the Web 2.0 handle, despite the various attempts by iconoclasts to topple it in 2008, or Arrington’s theory that a overpheromoned party of cool kids meant the demise of 2.0. I think Web 2.0 is fairly well-understood to represent a set of convergent and mutually supportive ideas — the Web as a platform, open standards, APIs, social tools, fast and low-cost development tools and techniques — that have come to define a generation of Web development and business. Enterprise 2.0, on the other hand, does not have the same coherence.Perhaps this is because so many of the principles of Web 2.0 are blunted by the command-and-control needs of the enterprise. You cannot state that Enterprise 2.0 is Web 2.0 for the enterprise because much of what defines Web 2.0 does not easily translate to the enterprise context.

In particular, Web 2.0 as a phenomenon is strongly tied to social tools — social networking, social media, and so on — in which the individual is primary, and asymmetric networks of relationships with other individuals form the principal mechanism for connection and information flow. However, this does not gibe with the enterprise obsession with groups: where the rights and responsibilities of individuals are derived from group membership, and these rights are granted by the enterprise.

This apparently minor mismatch between the individualistic web and the organizational one desired by management leads me to believe that we are looking at the wrong end of the sausage machine. We need to switch our attention to the shifting nature of work itself, and how business needs to be reconsidered in a rapidly changing world (which includes a revolutionary social Web, notably). Toward that end, all manner of innovations, tools, and practices might be evaluated for their utility and impacts, but they cannot be considered hanging in space, in some sort of strategic vacuum.

First and foremost, management must settle on some principles around which work itself can be reworked. Difficult questions must be posed, and deep and principled thinking must take place before tactical software and business process changes can take place. In essence,
forward-looking companies will devise something like a constitution and a bill of rights that attempt to lay out a worldview about the purpose of the firm, what it stands for, how it will treat its customers, what is expected from employees, and what the social contract between the company and individuals — employees and customers — is.

So, I have come to believe that this is the place where companies need to focus their attention: socializing the business, not adoption of Web 2.0

I guess it is unsurprising that in Howlett’s most recent polemic, he takes aim at the ‘social business’ heresy that he sees arising:

I’ve argued for years that the notion of anything that has ’social’ attached to its moniker is about as welcome as breaking wind in a spacesuit. I’ve also argued that I’ve never heard anyone ask for some Enterprise 2.0 though I’ve heard plenty ask for ERP, CRM etc. Most recently, the new buzz phrase ’social business design’ has hit the streets. Here’s one definition:

Social Business Design is the intentional creation of dynamic and socially calibrated systems, process, and culture.

Its goal: helping organizations improve value exchange among constituents.

Good luck with that one.

Perhaps the panel would have done better had they taken a leaf out of Andrew McAfee’s book. In his presentation about Enterprise 2.0 no-no’s, he says:

Like too many words in the English language, ’social’ has taken on a handful of different meanings. Though most would probably agree that technically it’s an accurate word when used to describe various enterprise solutions, the implications are not always desirable.

I have never come across a word that has more negative connotations to a busy pragmatic manager,” said McAfee, explaining that he’s seen many-a-boss assume that ’social’ tools wouldn’t help anything but employees talk too much and goof off.

Though McAfee didn’t suggest a new or better word to use (collaboration? communities?) he finished the presentation with an interesting image choice to illustrate how some managers interpret the use of ’social’ solutions: two dirty hippies hugging it out at Woodstock, surrounded by litter and despair.

[My emphasis added]

At this point I must give Andy McAfee full credit for acknowledging the bleeding obvious. Isn’t that what I’ve been saying for years? The problem for those trying to pimp this stuff is they’re now stuck with two things: ’social’ intermingled at every turn because no-one can think of anything better and 2.0 which roots them at a moment in time. It’s a classic example of bandwagon marketing that looks sexy yet has gone nuts in the process. Crowdsourcing at its worst.

So, if I can try to cut through the incredibly intertwined logic here, Howlett is making this case:

  1. The ‘social’ dimension may be factual (McAfee), since that what is being brought to the fore by Web 2.0 technologies, but it is unattractive to ‘pragmatic’ (conservative, risk averse) managers.
  2. Social might mean a lot of things to a lot of people, and some of those meanings may be unhelpful, despite the consensus around the term in the larger Web community.
  3. Howlett doesn’t actually talk about the technologies or business practices involved, but just about the attractiveness or unattractiveness of the term to management.

Dennis is joined by others, like Mark Fidelman, in his disdain for ‘social business’:

I happen to agree with Howlett on these two points. First, using Social and business in the same sentence scares decision makers in the corporate world today especially with a lackluster economy. We can use social to describe aspects of Enterprise 2.0, but not lead with it. In my
experience as a senior executive in large and small companies and with my discussions with executive peers, social does not resonate with board members or decision makers with large budgets.

Second, I don’t see many companies buying Enterprise 2.0 solutions. Sure they are purchasing solutions from vendors in the Enterprise 2.0 space, but there is not a collective push for an Enterprise 2.0 solution in the corporate world today. Companies do buy ERP, MRP and CRM because they are succinct mission critical solutions with proven ROI models and case studies.

We need more groups like the Adoption 2.0 Council and industry analysts like Gartner, Forrester, CMS Watch, Gilbane etc. to create ROI models and to start categorizing Enterprise 2.0 solutions into recognizable buckets. For example (and I am not an expert on naming conventions) I bet if there is an Enterprise Business Collaboration (EBC) category with well defined boundaries, case studies and ROI models, companies will start to budget for it.

What, more ROI studies?

In the final analysis, this seems like yet another example of paradigm change. Kuhn, in The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions, detailed the research that demonstrates that schools of thought fail and are replaced by revolutionary viewpoints exactly when the old theories cannot explain what is happening in new research.

Kuhn also makes the case that the old paradigm — in this case the conventional establishment IT perspective of functional silos and silo-based business processes — cannot effectively disprove the new paradigm, and vice versa:

[via Wikipedia]


According to Kuhn, the scientific paradigms preceding and succeeding a paradigm shift are so different that their theories are incommensurable — the new paradigm cannot be proven or disproven by the rules of the old paradigm, and vice versa. The paradigm shift does not merely involve the revision or transformation of an individual theory, it changes the way terminology is defined, how the scientists in that field view their subject, and, perhaps most significantly, what questions are regarded as valid, and what rules are used to determine the truth of a particular theory. The new theories were not, as the scientists had previously thought, just extensions of old theories, but were instead completely new world views.

[emphasis mine.]

Such incommensurability exists not just before and after a paradigm shift, but in the periods in between conflicting paradigms. It is simply not possible, according to Kuhn, to construct an impartial language that can be used to perform a neutral comparison between conflicting paradigms, because the very terms used are integral to the respective paradigms, and therefore have different connotations in each paradigm. The advocates of mutually exclusive paradigms are in an invidious position: “Though each may hope to convert the other to his way of seeing science and its problems, neither may hope to prove his case. The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proof.” (SSR, p. 148). Scientists subscribing to different paradigms end up talking past one another.

Here, I think we have a bastion of the old guard arguing that the new ways of thinking are illegitimate, have not been proved, and those that espouse them are crazy.

I deeply and strongly believe in a different worldview, as I recently stated, on the Social Business Epicenter blog:

Today, more than ever, management is reexamining and rethinking the basic principles of business: how to innovate and prosper. To that end, managers are looking to stay in step with a changing world, and the rise of the social web in particular.

How should today’s business leverage what is being learned about the social web? Certainly what is going on today is more than just social media marketing, limited to marketing and community outreach efforts. Some of the leading thinkers in this area believe that we are at the start of something much larger than a retake on marketing.

We are seeing a rethinking of work, collaboration, and the role of management in a changing world, where the principles and tools of the web are transforming society, media, and business. The mainstays of business theory — like innovation, competitive advantage, marketing, production, and strategic planning — need to be reconsidered and rebalanced in the context of a changing world. The rise of the real-time, social web has become one of the critical factors in this new century, along with a radically changed global economic climate, an accelerating need for sustainable business practices, and a political context demanding increased openness in business.

These issues cannot be dealt with one by one, but instead approached as connected elements of a new world order for business.

I believe that Kuhn was right: there is no way to logically encompass the new, revolutionary worldview through the terms and values of the old. Which is one of the motivations of leaving behind the Enterprise 2.0 handle: it is too mired in years of argument firmly rooted in the web 1.0 and pre-web world views.

To the extent that a post-industrial or 21st Century worldview has begun to emerge, it is being applied to a new set of principles and practices surrounding the future of work and business. It cannot be judged by the dictates and dogma of the past, as much as the naysyers would like that to be true. We will have to develop a new set of values — and rules for defining them — based sui generis in the heart of what we discover, not what we find in the trunks up in the attic, left over from an earlier generation of IT strategy.

Winston Churchill once said, “Why, you may take the most gallant sailor, the most intrepid airman or the most audacious soldier, put them at a table together- what do you get? The sum of all fears.” If you collect a group of commentators, just like any Sunday morning news show, you will hear the sum of their fears, all the reasons why not.

I am interested, these days, in spending my time with folks who are rethinking the premises of business, society, and media, since it is self-evident that we have critical problems in all these areas. And it is unlikely that the means that we used to get ourselves into the mess that the world is in, now, will work in getting us out, and into something better.

Enhanced by Zemanta



My principal obsession is the ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store