A Tale of Two E20 Cities – From San Francisco to Frankfurt

by Lee Bryant 10 Nov 2009 Blog Post

The Enterprise 2.0 San Francisco event ended last week, handing over the baton to Europe for the E2.0 Summit in Frankfurt, which starts today. It looks like Kongress media have put together a good lineup and a very practical agenda, so I am looking forward to some intelligent discussions about the practice of enterprise social computing in Europe, rather than the kind of navel gazing, ideological debates that seemed to dominate in San Francisco.

I was sorry not to be there in person, but following the San Francisco event via the web gave the impression of a well-attended event and a still-growing community of vendors, consultants and users. But, there were also signs of impatience and defensiveness. It hosted some good discussions about implementing enterprise tools, and it was nice to see Susan Scrupski’s Adoption Council active in many of these debates. Dion Hinchcliffe shared a typically comprehensive and, I think, very useful presentation about overall implementation methodologies, and there were also a few interesting case studies. But the debate about business value and how these technologies play into the future of the workplace and organisational design seemed to me to be quite basic and also rather polarised.

The conference devoted an entire session to disproving the critique of a single blogger, Dennis Howlett, that claimed the field is without merit, and companies have more important things to worry about, such as continuing with large-scale CRM or ERP projects. Read-Write web (politely) labelled this a straw man argument, and to my mind, Andrew McAfee and other respondents had already answered this back in early September, so I was surprised it got so much attention.

There was also a lot of talk about process, and whether or not E2.0 supports it. Nenshad Bardoliwalla wrote an intelligent post about the need for strategy-driven execution, and argued that E1.0 will continue to exist alongside E2.0. Oliver Marks and Sameer Patel ran a session about making a case for accelerated business performance using E2.0; Oliver followed up with a post asking where’s the beef? in relation to a clearly stated value proposition for E2.0, whilst Sameer chipped in with a well written and detailed post arguing for greater focus on supporting and improving ‘traditional’ process performance. Each made some good points.

Andrew McAfee’s keynote spoke of signs of progress and a shift from business skepticism to acceptance of enterprise social tools, but he also offered a few words of advice on things to avoid when trying to bring companies on board. These included sensible warnings against arguing that all existing models and tools will become obsolete – including email – and against ‘featuritis’; but he also suggested that the use of the word ‘social’ is problematic and to be avoided, because it carries serious negative connotations for many a “busy pragmatic manager.” His slides even implied a link between the term social and the twin evils of Marxism and Woodstock, which is ironic given that it was the post-Woodstock baby boomers who ran the banks aground requiring state intervention.

If Enterprise 2.0 is all about selling software tools, then I might agree that we need to simply parrot the language we are hearing from potential buyers. But selling, and even adopting tools, is not why we are here. We are here to improve and update the way people operate and interact with businesses, or perhaps as Karl Long put it recently, to re-write the business operating system. Indeed, it is partly this over-emphasis of the role of software in the definition of E2.0 that led us towards adopting the broader term social business design.

Actually, I think the emergence of reactionary positions such as avoiding the word ‘social’ so as not to scare the horses, or suddenly believing that ERP and CRM were ‘good’ innovations just because businesses are still buying them, or even that management by repeatable process actually works, is proof that we are on the cusp of change. As Stowe Boyd mentioned in an excellent contribution to the debate, this is a feature of a paradigm shift:

[Thomas] Kuhn … 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.

It is precisely at this point in the cycle that there appears to be the greatest dissonance between old and new paradigms, and this causes some people to lose their nerve and seek assimilation in the comfortable old ways that seem to be so safe and uncontroversial. Also, at this point, we see an influx of people coming from the old paradigm, such as CRM, CMS and ERP consultants, who continue to see the world in terms of their existing product categories and lenses.

Dennis Howlett, in a follow-up post seeking to claim credit for the debate that he began with his initial post, concluded:

It is good to see that in the discourse even my sharpest critics have acknowledged the emphasis and use of ’social’ as a dreadful mistake.

Is the word ‘social’ unbusinesslike? Well, of course not, and you will rarely find a senior manager who does not agree that business is also social, people buy from people, etc; and it is very hard to think of a more accurate term to describe harnessing people and networks for business. But that doesn’t those much lower down the value chain falling over themselves to come across as more Gordon Gecko than the managers whose language they imitate.

What counts here is outcomes, not terminology, prejudice or ideological insecurities. If we are communicating the value proposition of E2.0 or social business design simply in terms of labels, then we will not get very far. There is plenty of evidence that the move towards socialising business, by which I mean making smarter use of people and networks to create value, produces excellent outcomes. There is also plenty of evidence that much existing business practice, such as the ERP systems Dennis talks about, are often not worth their exorbitantly high cost.

How about process? Well, some of the newcomers to this debate may not be aware, but there is a lot of prior art regarding the relationship between social business and process. One of the key drivers of social business is the idea that the mid-to-late C20th was guilty of valuing process over people, based on factory thinking and Taylorism, and that this has caused both an inflation in internal costs around process management, and a reduction in productivity and performance as people are disincentivised to use their initiative or take personal responsibility for outcomes. Anybody working in a large corporation today can tell horror stories of how the simplest activities can take weeks and costs a fortune because inefficient and sometimes unnecessary process has gradually built up around what should be simple tasks. This is one of the greatest areas of potential cost saving in business today, largely because the assumptions that underpinned the development of this way of working no longer hold true. But over the longer term, this is also one of the greatest sources of value creation as employees and networks become more productive and collectively intelligent.

This is not to suggest process is no longer important – far from it. Within the E2.0 field, there has also been some good thinking about the importance of embedding social interaction within the daily flow of work, to support concrete use cases and workflows. Indeed, finding better ways to support necessary business processes is a core part of our methodology and value proposition.

I see social business and E2.0 as evolutionary, not revolutionary. But that does not mean that we should not be open to the idea of transforming and improving business structures, rather than just selling software under labels that buyers believe are safe choices. It is easy for commentators to stand up and claim to represent the business mainstream, but this is patronising to both business leaders (who are painfully aware of the limits of current IT-supported practice) and those of us who are actually practitioners in this field.

The one area where we agree, however, is that E2.0 has become too focused on software products, rather than business outcomes. My colleague Jeff Dachis gave a keynote at the San Francisco conference, placing social business in an historical context and making the point that IT is only part of the solution. I think this message is in danger of getting lost in a debate that is focusing too much on software categories.

At the E20 Summit in Frankfurt, we shall be discussing topics such as business value propositions, collaborative performance, internal communication, knowledge sharing, leadership, the power of feedback, organisational design and role of social tools in a downturn. Hopefully there will be less semantic posturing and more substantive ideas that can help us take forward our practice. You can follow the debate on twitter, or by taking part in one the experimental Google Waves that we are using for collaborative note taking and discussion – just search public waves for the tags ‘e20s’ or ‘e20summit’.

  • Jon Husband

    IMHO business has always been social … only less so during the first 20 years of applying integrated IT systems to business processes in search of efficiency.

    Unfortunately, reengineered business processes usually begin to be less effective, or ‘fail’ when and because those social people who make up their customers and markets begin to want / need different things or interact around different issues and requirements.

    The heyday of reengineering and multimillion dollar ERP and CRM implementations is fast drawing to not a close but an era in which hyperlinks and people will crawl all over the ‘electronic concrete’ of large integrated systems like fast-growing ivy because, well, they are not flexible or responsive enough to the constant information flows which often do not fit into those business processes.

    No customers like being prisoners of business processes.

    I think we are entering anew phase of what would be a long-established maturation path … and that path has long been informable by socio-technical systems principles. The assumptions about technology that informed STS in the 60′s through 80′s did not foresee the capabilities now on offer via the Web … it’s only now that we have the kinds of technology that allow people and the business processes to interact to positive effect for both.

    • Lee Bryant

      well put sir!

  • Martijn Linssen

    Great blog post, nicely summerising the last 2 months of debate as well as the E2.0 event (from what I got following the hashtag on Twitter. Well done!

    No one can disagree with the fact that the way we’re currently doing business, can be improved. And that social media is one of the ways of doing that, if the the way at this very moment

    I tried explaining on my latest blog post (http://bit.ly/1Ntfdc) that the criticism is good, and it will help focus. But it shouldn’t be argued that E2.0 is bad because it won’t save the world. That’s pretty much like arguing that it’s not worth living because “we’re all gonna die anyway”