Monday, December 17, 2007

Web 2.0 and the Lack of Process

I was at a meeting a few weeks ago to establish our plans for the upcoming year. In my part of the company, KM efforts are divided into three logical categories: people, process, and technology.

Now, this categorization is a relatively innocuous way to manage the projects. However, I always balk at it a little, because -- although it is clear that these are the three key aspects to KM -- you need all three to work together for any one project to succeed. Separating projects into people projects, process projects, and technology projects is artificial and may reinforce false assumptions about the balance of emphasis. However, the three categories are ultimately a handy way to divvy up responsibility. Besides, since the team I am in is small and works well together, it all comes out in the wash.

I only mention this because it led me to an interesting discovery.

While pondering what to say about our current efforts with Web 2.0 technologies, it occurred to me why this topic creates so many problems for business today. Web 2.0 is all about people (the wisdom of crowds, etc.). It is also about technology (the "stuff" that makes web 2.0 so interesting). But there is no process in web 2.0.

By that I mean that the technology itself makes no assumption about how or why the technology would be used. What is the usage model for Twitter? Who should blog? What should you use a wiki for? The answer -- if you bother to ask -- is usually "whatever you want!"

There are plenty of people out there willing to give their opinions (including myself, it appears). But at their core, most of the interesting web 2.0 technologies provide capabilities, whose potential increases as the number of users increase, but few if any limitations or even guidance on their use.

For example, a wiki is simply a web site anyone can edit. Why? Oh, there are many potential uses. But there are no restrictions. The result is that many wikis (most, I suspect) become trash cans of unrelated, out-dated, and inappropriate content.

A wiki becomes interesting once it has a purpose. By that I mean, someone decides what the wiki should be used for, defines a structure, and decides on a process to achieve that structure. Wikipedia, the classic example of a successful wiki is also a prime example of the amount of work needed to make that wiki a success: A clear statement of purpose, a well-defined process for contributing, and mechanisms for handling exceptions. None of this is inherent in the wiki itself. It must be defined and agreed upon by the owners and maintainers of the wiki, which is no small feat. The consequence is that many wikis are created hastily without the necessary process, resulting in failure or abandonment.

Compare this to earlier technologies. Email, for instance. Process is designed into the very core of most of these older technologies. You have an email client. You choose who to send email to. They can read it, reply to it, forward it, save it, and delete it. That's all. The technology embodies the processes previously defined for physical mail.

Even more recent technologies have process built into their design and nomenclature:
  • In instant messaging, you send "messages" to individuals who can choose who to receive messages from or not. Once a message arrives, a conversation starts and you can reply or close the dialog. Period.
  • IRC is divided into "channels" that users can open and participate in. Each channel implies a separate topic.
  • Even the web site -- the very essence of web 1.0 -- that on the surface would not seem to dictate a usage model, is laden with implicit assumptions about usage and structure. The URL itself defines a host, a directory (that is hierarchically structured), and a page. Ownership is implied by whoever owns or manages the hosting server. A logical structure is ascribed to the information by the hierarchy of directories. And finally the content itself is chunked into "pages".

But a wiki has no implicit structure, no directories (beyond the automated "recent changes" and alphabetical list of titles), and no owner (if you follow the original concept of anyone can edit). And wikis are not alone in this laissez-faire approach. Blogs place no structure on their contents except chronology. The use of tags allows the user to apply structure if they wish but tags are optional, and under the individual user's control. (No common vocabulary.) And collectively, blogs do nothing to help the readers sort through the massive collection of information qualitatively. Which are the blogs that deserve attention? It is totally up to the reader to decide.

This is the complete antithesis of today's corporate intranet, where "quality" and "consistency" rule and millions of dollars are spent each year to make sure only the right information is posted in the appropriate location by the right people using the right procedures. An entire industry -- CMS -- has developed to make this possible.

So if web 2.0 is so completely lacking any structure or process, why is corporate America so interested in it? The answer is because it has proven to succeed exactly where corporate intranets have failed.

Within the corporation, getting people to communicate with each other and share ideas (outside of the set patterns of regular meetings and organizational structure) is like pulling teeth. They don't have the time, don't know how, etc. But set them loose on the internet and they will willingly comment on anything from favorite sports to the detailed pros and cons of a specific model and brand of VCR, free of charge. Similarly, getting anything posted onto a corporate web site can take days or weeks as it passes through the approval and formatting processes. Updating a wiki entry is a matter of minutes.

Nobody complains about the ease of use of Wikipedia (except those who claim it is too easy to add false information). The same can not be said for any corporate application I can think of.

So web 2.0 appears to resolve two of the key problems of corporate applications: acceptance and adoption. But volume of use and acceptability of the software are not measures of business value. Although they are antidotes to the most common complaints about corporate IT, they don't in and of themselves solve the problem of effectively managing corporate knowledge.

So, IT is interested, but they are afraid.

They are afraid of what will happen when you set loose an undisciplined technology inside the firewall. How do they support it (when in many cases it isn't commercial code)? How do they control it (when they don't know what it should or should not be used for)?

They are afraid and well they should be because history has taught them that technology for technology's sake can become a monster. And as much as everyone would like to think business applications could take on the viral characteristics of web 2.0, it is not likely to happen. It won't happen because the audience (the corporate employee base) is too small, the audience is (in general) don't have the time to experiment or want to, and even if a valid business case develops, 3 out of 4 times there will be an existing application that the web 2.0 technology will compete with. Corporations do not like competing technical solutions because they cause confusion, cost money, and complicate what the company wants to maintain as simple step-by-step procedures.

That doesn't mean web 2.0 doesn't have a place within the corporate firewall. It just means it doesn't have a predefined place within the business world and it will take some intelligence and deep thinking to map it to the appropriate processes.


Patti said...

Well said, Andrew.

I think that, like the technologies themselves, process emerges as people develop and articulate norms in accordance with their purpose. Within a corporate environment, I believe that providing examples of good practice and guidance rather than rules is part of how it will all come out.


Dan Keldsen said...

Andrew - right on. In many ways Enterprise 2.0 (and Web 2.0) do appear to be about breaking the rules (e.g., it's a blank canvas, enjoy!), but providing some guidelines (or guard rails as I sometimes promote) to help those who are not comfortable just diving right in and making it up, is certainly a key.

Patti is helping us (in the AIIM Market Intelligence unit) with our Q1 2008 Enterprise 2.0 work, and we're wrestling with (and surveying on) these very questions.

What tools are appropriate? How to get started? Where to get started? How to keep it going? Is this really "anti-process" or perhaps the front-end of say, an innovation process?

Don't know yet. But keep an eye out, we're hoping to uncover some of these thoughts, and I welcome hearing from anyone with success or failure stories. Will need those to feed into our Q2 training series, forthcoming radio show, etc..

Stacie said...

Thanks Andrew - great points. At Accenture we have been working to put some type of structure/guidance around forums,blog,wikis for our people (e.g. when to use what, how are people using them/success stories, etc.). While a good start, we have more work to do to really help our people understand the potentials behind these capabiltiies and make them more seamless. We ourselves are also learning as we go.


zyxo said...

It is very normal that the processes of web 1.0 are not the same processes of web 2.0. The processes are not lacking, they simply are different.
in a recent post (zyxo at I commented the difficulties managers can have with adopting enterprise 2.0.
Enterprise 2.0 is not just web 2.0 in an enterprise. You first need a change in culture, which means adopting new processes.
After all : IT applications are a means to permit or speed up desired processes, not the other way around.

Atul said...

I agree with you in large part, Andrew, except that even in the context of sharing knowledge within the organization, people are not quite as forthcoming as they are doing something similar on the internet (brand of VCR?). In fact, this typically ends up being the major conundrum that organizations end up facing!

סיגל said...

Knowledge management, as we know it, is no longer relevant in this 2.0 new world. We must understand that the old ways of KM have to step down and allow new ways of Web 2.0 through communicational KM. In organizations, his can be done mostly by wikis. more about KM ...

Andrew Gent said...

סיגל said "Knowledge management, as we know it, is no longer relevant in this 2.0 new world." Well, that depends on what you know as KM. For most of us who practice KM, that statement is completely untrue. Web 2.0 may be revolutionary, but it is a natural extension of many of the collaborative techniques used before (forums, BBs, IRC, etc.)

If, on the other hand, you think of KM as strict document management, taxonomies, selection criteria, etc... then social computing does stand in direct opposition to the top-down management of knowledge. But even then, in companies where knowledge is "shepherded" this way, the KM processes are controlled by management and therefore are not going to accede and "stand aside" quietly. This gets back to the question of ROI and what justification KM programs need within a corporation. If you can't justify traditional "managed" KM processes, social computing doesn't stand a chance of gaining approval.

That doesn't mean it's not going to happen. It just means it will be more conflict than evolution or coexistance.

It really depends on the specific attitudes towards KM and employee self-reliance within each company.