Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Threat of Social Software, Part 2

(continued from Part 1)

The debate rages on concerning web 2.0 technologies within the enterprise. Most recently, Tom Davenport and Andrew MacAfee debated the inevitability of “enterprise 2.0” at an industry conference. The debate appears to be on whether Web 2.0 is a fad or something genuinely different and how rapidly it will be adopted by business. Will it be evolution or revolution?

Evolution is most likely, but the evolutionary process will change the technology as much as it will change the corporate users (and managers). We can already see this in Microsoft’s implementation of “wikis” (deliberately in quotes) in MOSS 2007. I even had someone ask me why we would need FaceBook or other social networking sites when we have MOSS 2007 MySite. The misunderstanding of the technology and the culture it imbues is astounding and indicates that corporate adoption will tend to be more of a sublimation than evolutionary growth.

One of the major problems facing web 2.0 technologies within the corporation is the matter of scale. Even if you can overcome the misconceptions about the technology, wend a path through the multitudinous issues of security, privacy, legacy applications, etc… Even if you manage to balance all that, much of what drives web 2.0 – crowds – are missing or anemic within the corporate firewall. Instead of millions of users, you have thousands, instead of thousands of advocates, you have tens or (in an ideal world) hundreds. Is that enough?

For some web 2.0 technologies it is. Wikis work well with both large and small “crowds”. So for wikis, the issue is not scale, but purpose and visibility. There is not much purpose or certainly not enough manpower, to reproduce Wikipedia inside the firewall (although that is often a popular first step corporations attempt). Usually, the next step is to try using wikis to run projects. Say what?

But many of the other web 2.0 technologies require numbers to succeed. Social Networking sites are a prime example. Bookmarking and other folksonomic tagging efforts share the same failing. A tagsonomy like Flickr or works because of the sheer volume of tags. If I use Flickr to look up pictures of circus clowns, I get plenty of results – often better than doing an equivalent Google or Yahoo image search. If someone misspells a tag or chooses a different word, such as “Clowm” or “fool”, I will not find it. But I don’t miss anything because of the volume of material I do find. However, if there are only a few hundred people tagging, synonyms, misspellings, and different terminology becomes problematic because the number of total tags is so small.

The magnification of deviation due to small samples is very problematic in corporations, to which there is no easy answer. If you take the prototype/laissez-faire/build-it-and-they-will-come approach, you further diminish the sample size, but at least you have interested users. If you try to enforce use to increase the sample size, you don’t have people using the system out of self-interest and you introduce a certain level of pathological behavior (mistagging, overtagging, intentional abuse, etc.) from those who do not understand or are resistant to the system*. You increase the deviation at the same time you increase the volume, defeating your own purpose.

(continued in Part 3)

*Footnote: note that misuse of enforced systems is not unique to web 2.0 technologies – it occurs with any enforced processes or technologies. It is just that other technologies are usually designed with defenses against it – like enforced vocabularies – whereas web 2.0 tends to assume a receptive audience.

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