Book review – Enterprise 2.0

‘Enterprise 2.0’ is a meme that was coined in 2006 by academic Andrew McAfee to describe the use of so-called Web 2.0 tools (wikis, blogs, social networks, etc.) in business. Both concepts were nebulous at that time, and in the intervening years (slightly) more explicit terms such as social media and online collaboration software have become more commonplace.

December 2009 sees the release of McAfee’s book of the same name, in which he presents the case for using social and collaborative technologies to achieve business goals.

The book is not specifically aimed at an IT audience, the author writes. Instead, he argues that it is line-of-business managers that stand to gain the most from reading it. “I believe that general managers are the single most important constituency for technology success or failure,” McAfee writes.

“This book has one broad message for this audience: the story of how businesses use technology is about to become a lot more interesting,” he adds.

That business focus has two consequences for IT professionals reading this (and there is much to recommend that they do). The first is that the sections of the book in which McAfee introduces some of the consumer web technologies that have given rise to Enterprise 2.0, such as Wikipedia and Facebook, might feel like old news.

But it is worth persevering, because this non-IT focus liberates McAfee from dwelling on the tools and technology. Much of the argument is based instead upon the organisational and psychological dynamics that, McAfee contends, make Enterprise 2.0 so powerful.

He presents a brief introduction to some of the social science that lends weight to the argument for Enterprise 2.0, including the concept of ‘tie strength’ in human relationships. Our social environment, the theory goes, can be described as a number of links of various strength; we have strong links to our close friends and colleagues, weak links with acquaintances and no links to complete strangers.

In business as in society, McAfee argues, weak ties are just as important as strong ones, as it is often through our acquaintances that we are introduced to new ideas or information.

Mark Granovetter, the author of ‘tie strength’ theory, once wrote that “social systems lacking in weak ties will be fragmented and incoherent”. McAfee remarks that Granovetter could have been referring to businesses in this quote.

One way in which Enterprise 2.0 tools assist business is to increase the number of ‘weak ties’ an employee can maintain, either within or outside the organisation. This will lead to a more coherent structure, McAfee argues, in which information and ideas will flow more readily, in turn making business better informed and more innovative.

Other social concepts introduced in the book include emergence. This term describes systems in which qualities of the molecular components give rise in aggregate to a global structure. He references securities markets as an example of emergent systems, in which individual trades aggregate to become a system of valuation.

McAfee builds the concept of emergence into his definition of Enterprise 2.0: “the use of emergent social software platforms by organisations in pursuit of their goals”. He advocates the much-debated ‘wisdom of crowds’; in certain circumstances, groups of people are better at taking decisions than any individual. Again, Enterprise 2.0 tools can allow this process to occur within organisations, or can be used by organisations to predict market demand.

Discussion of these concepts is weaved into case study examples from user organisations including the US Intelligence Community, which has since 2006 adopted a Wikipedia-like knowledge-sharing system. McAfee cites a New York Times Magazine article presenting the case that such technology could have prevented the 9/11 attacks – quite an endorsement.

McAfee’s book presents some much-needed tools with which to discuss and debate the merits, or otherwise, or Enterprise 2.0 adoption. Whatever McAfee’s desired audience of business managers will make of it, it certainly provides some clarity for IT decision-makers wondering what to make of the Web 2.0 tools that are, almost certainly, spreading through their organisation with or without their blessing.

Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization’s Toughest Challenges. By Andrew McAfee. Published by Harvard Business Press. ISBN: 9781422125878. Price: £19.99

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Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media (now Bonhill Group plc) from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The...

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