Democratization of Content with Web 2.0: The Emergent vs. Deliberate Debate:
There's nothing like a good debate to get facts and opinions on the table and out onto the Web. I've been following the recent posts and writings of Harvard Business School associate professor, Andrew McAfee, on Enterprise 2.0 for a week or so now. And I'm not alone. As I wrote mid-week, the invariably insightful if usually quizzical Nicholas Carr has been following along as well: ("Some skepticism is in order.")
Thus this week's most prominent discussion of Web 2.0 in the enterprise, by which we're primarily referring to the emergent and self-organizing forces swirling around two-way Web technologies like blogs, wikis, and social networks, has gone back and forth between Nicholas Carr and McAfee a couple of times now. And though some very good must-read analysis has come out of the exchange, it turns out that both of them are carefully hedging their bets about whether Web 2.0 the enterprise will really happen, though for important but slightly different reasons. Here is where I think they both go slightly off track...
Trends: No-Barrier Self-Expression, Emergent Organization, Lensing of Information: McAfee seems to get it
McAfee himself describes the nascent infiltration of blogs, wikis, and other two-way Web technologies behind the firewall as Enterprise 2.0. While I prefer to call this Enterprise Web 2.0 because the Web is a central feature of this change, I'll accept his moniker as simpler though not as self-explanatory. In his original post, McAfee hits the mark again and again with all the reasons why Web 2.0 is reshaping society, culture, and business. When we look at the MySpace phenomenon, the number of blogs being created daily, and the problems with BitTorrent bandwidth, we can all easily see that powerful forces are obviously at work. And, moreover, that these forces are entirely made of people.
Peer production, the mass production of content by the masses, is one of the central benefits of Web 2.0. Not only are the forces of creation that were previously trapped in expensive silos of production (large organizations) let loose, because the cost of production and distribution is nearly zero on the Web, but so are the forces of consumption. It's now easier than ever to find the exact content you're looking for. Google's famous search engine and Digg's non-hierarchical editorial control model are two excellent examples of this trend. But the crux is that it's all so easy, extremely cheap, and that so many people are doing it.
But this phenomenon is primarily on the Web and not in the enterprise. And that's the rub. Will this ever happen in the enterprise? And if it will, how and why?
Carr Says the Most Valuable Workers Can't or Won't Peer Produce Content
Despite being Web 2.0 software being easy to use (McAfee gave his students an assignment to create a blog, and those that did reported the obvious: it was free and trivial to do), requiring little or no training, and having a amazing track record on the Web (27 million+ blogs exist, doubling every 5 months, and the blogosphere is 60 times larger than it was 3 years ago), Carr thinks that it's an open question whether a similar result can be triggered in the enterprise. His claim: That the busiest and most valuable workers could just be too busy to add the share their knowledge via these tools (blogging takes time and commitment, as any blogger will tell you).
I also think awareness of the tools and habitualizing their use could be another problem. Then there's the fact many enterprises still aren't using these tools, even though they are just a simple URL away on the Web. All the while those same bloggers and Wikipedia contributors apparently become mute when they go to work.
The Real Upshot: The Mass of Self-Interest, Emergent Control Moving To the Tail, and Innovation Flowing from the Edge
However, I believe the real answer to these questions lies by looking at underlying reasons why Web 2.0 is so successful on the Web. And this is where McAfee himself gets so tantalizingly close, and then misses the mark at the very end of his most recent post. The first reason, which I put at the top of my Ten Ways to Take Advantage of Web 2.0, is to encourage social contributions with individual benefit. While Wikipedia contributions are largely ego driven (public credit for contributing knowledge), things like del.icio.us bookmarks and Flickr picture uploading are driven by personal convenience and value (easily accessed bookmarks or a place to share pictures with friends and family). Part of this is the Database of Intentions bit that builds valuable collective intelligence by automatically collecting what people do on the Web, but it's really about giving them a personal incentive to do so. Mandates and policies that require use of Web 2.0 software in the enterprise will never be anywhere as effective as personal motivation.
And brings us to the part where McAfee gets wrong, and that is that namely is his assertion that business leaders will foster adoption, instead of the individual worker: "If these leaders signal that they really don’t want open, freeform, and emergent collaboration, they really won’t get it." I would assert that even if they ouright demand these things from employees, they won't get them. Demanding emergent behavior from people just doesn't work. Now, I'm sure you're thinking, if freeform, emergent behavior will happen anyway given these new tools, shouldn't we see big changes in the enterprise already?
And this is where this shift of control is changing things. Previously, innovation often came from the top of the enterprise and trickled down to the consumer. But the tools for creation of content of almost every variety is becoming pushed out to the edge, is virtually free, and driven by passion-filled individuals who can create wonders in their spare time. The inversion of control is changing where the innovation is happening and that's why we're seeing it on the Web first. There's little doubt that it will pour into the enterprise in due time, but since it's largely not created there, it'll happen in the wild first. The Long Tail of control, created by the forces of Web 2.0, will push the majority of content creation into the tail. And significantly, that means that most folks won't have to be frequent creators or even consumers of this content, but that will be more than enough to create what everyone wants, a likely embarassement of riches once things really get rolling.
The upheavals and outcome of all this is as unclear as it is significant because enterprises are primarily organized around central control and focused innovation, two things easily disrupted by this shift of control. Now that innovation, content creation, and control over its distribution now happens mostly at the edge of the network and in The Long Tail it will be fascinating to see what the ongoing fallout will be as entire industries are likely remade in the process.
Don't agree Web 2.0 will remake the enterprise too? Where is all this heading?