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Writing the book on Enterprise 2.0

Andrew McAfee, who first coined the term "Enterprise 2.0" in 2006, has written the definitive book about it. Enterprise 2.0, New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges will be published in December by Harvard Business School Press. He is currently a principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

McAfee will deliver the opening keynote address Nov. 17 at the KMWorld 2009 Conference and Exposition in San Jose, and recently spoke with KMWorld Editor in Chief Hugh McKellar. Their discussion follows.

Hugh McKellar: Let’s jump right in. Describe the genesis of Enterprise 2.0.

Andrew McAfee: I started hearing the phrase Web 2.0, which I thought was just more hype from the technology sector. Nevertheless, I wanted to test that skepticism and started looking around at things such as Wikipedia, Flickr and Delicious, and discovered that there really is something new under the sun with the technology toolkit. My second "eureka moment" was that these tools address many pretty pressing problems and challenges that companies have been facing for a long time—that is, harnessing and sharing knowledge, making sure it stays current, making sure it stays findable, harnessing the brains of the company. The Web 2.0 tools were demonstrating an ability to do all of that, and I coined the phrase Enterprise 2.0 to talk about the possibility of doing all that behind the firewall on intranets and extranets for selfish corporate purposes. 

HM: Let’s first address in a little bit more detail how to ensure that knowledge is fresh and findable and represents the best thinking in an organization. How do these tools enable it in a business environment?

McAfee: Well, there are three things going on. First is a move from what I call channel technology. E-mail is a great example where I sent you an e-mail, and the rest of the organization--or the rest of the world--doesn’t know that we engaged in any interaction, doesn’t know the content of that interaction and that whatever you and I talked about isn’t accessible or usable to the rest of the organization. So, the first thing is a move away from using channels to using platforms, which are just video repositories where all the stuff sticks around and is visible to all members over a time.

So, every Web site is a platform, basically. The interesting thing, though, is that with the new style of platforms, we are not restricting the ability to distribute content to just a few people. We are basically throwing the doors wide open and saying, "Look, if you’ve got something to contribute, by all means pitch in." So, we are not having membership criteria. We are not assigning people into roles. We are not making the credentials upfront, and we are letting them do whatever feels right to them. This is a really big difference from how we are used to using technology. Over the years, we have been really good at using technology to make people step through standardized processes or fill in fields in a predefined database—to do things like that.

The second big shift is one away from that mindset and one of just kind of, "everyone, you’re welcome and do whatever you want to." That sounds like a recipe for chaos or anarchy or just getting drowned in a sea of undifferentiated information. What has, indeed, happened I find really interesting is that the smart technologists of the 2.0 era have found ways to let the cream rise to the top and to let structure appear over time, even though we are not trying to define or impose or make that structure upfront.

For example, Wikipedia has very well defined senior contributors, editors, administrators, people who are good at various tasks inside the encyclopedia, even though none of those people were assigned into them or had to present particular credentials upfront. But the Web as a whole has no central card catalog, in fact, no central librarian or taxonomist, and we used to think that was just going to be a recipe for chaos. Someone said the Internet is the world’s largest library; the problem is all the books are on the floor.

HM: Yes, but . . .

McAfee: In the era of Google, we don’t believe that anymore. It’s as if a card catalog for the Web assembles itself as the Web itself grows. That same realization has been applied to a bunch of different technologies using tools like linking and tagging and voting and things like that. So, the third transit, even though we are not restricting contributions for the new platforms, we are not getting chaos as a result. We are getting a very useful, navigable, powerful repository content. You put those three things together, and it starts to help me understand how we are finally realizing the potential of the knowledge management movement.

HM: This whole concept of knowledge sharing has been driving the KM movement long before Google, and there has always been reticence by a sizeable population to contribute. People are either afraid their ideas are going to sound dumb or worried they will be giving away a competitive advantage—even to colleagues. What are your thoughts about this dark side of collaboration?

McAfee: I definitely hear and see all of those things. The main shift, though, and it’s not completed by any stretch, is away from believing that hoarding information is the way to get ahead. It’s moving toward believing that sharing information is the way to get ahead. The scientific community is a perfect example here. No good scientist gets ahead by not publishing and not getting her ideas out there. In more and more companies, I see the same shift taking place away from hoarding or gate keeping or releasing information in a trickle being replaced by, "I’m going to show the organization what I know, what my expertise is, what I’m good at—therefore, my colleagues are going to come to me. It’s going to become obvious that I’m the source of authority here and hopefully the world will beat a path to my door." Just like in the blogosphere, the world beats a path to the bloggers who are most demonstratively prolific, insightful, interesting.

HM: What about workload? These days, everyone in an organization is already busy. Is there a model that you have seen, or can you share some thoughts about how companies are encouraging contributing to the organization’s total awareness and knowledge without expecting people to blur their personal and work lives.

McAfee: I’ve seen about three different major initiatives along those lines, and I think you bring up a really fundamental issue. Most knowledge workers today are very busy people, and if new modes of collaboration become one more thing on their to-do list, we’re not going to get anywhere.

So, three things that I’ve seen that seem to be working are, first of all, making these tools literally just as quick and easy and painless as possible. Exhibit A for me here is Twitter, which I find a phenomenally valuable resource and one that I contribute to fairly often, but that 140-character maximum means that I can’t spend a half-hour composing my Tweet. So, we can make it very quick, very easy, very painless for people to contribute to these kinds of environments. That doesn’t mean that the environment as a whole is trivial as a result. Like I say, I learn a lot and get a huge amount of value off Twitter. If I ask a question in 140 characters, within five minutes, I get a bunch of good answers back. I find that really powerful.

Another thing to do is to move 2.0-style collaboration from above the flow, meaning above the flow of your work—one more thing you have to do—to in the flow of your work. In other words, this is how we are actually going to track status on this project, write this document together, generate this spreadsheet together. This is not in addition to other things we are doing. This is a replacement for what we used to do. The third thing that I’ve seen that works is that if contributing to these platforms is valuable, then measure it and reward people for doing it, put it in performance reviews, make it part of their job.

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