Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Web 2.0, Process, and Multidimensionality

Some people seem to have taken my recent post on web 2.0 and the lack of process to imply that I was criticizing web 2.0 technologies. Far from it. I was simply making an observation, which -- if you dig a little deeper --actually demonstrates a flaw in the traditional approach to software development, particularly corporate software.

The lack of process in web 2.0 technologies can hardly be seen as a negative considering how successful they have been on the internet. It may cause problems for corporations trying to understand how to use them inside the firewall. But that is exactly why -- in many cases -- they are as successful as they are.

Schachter has said that he created to manage his own bookmarks. I believe it was Thomas Vander Wal who suggested that "refindability" for the individual is what drives contributions to the service. However, if it were simply supporting individual bookmarks, the service would not be even a hundredth as interesting as it is. What makes interesting is the ability to look across a vast union of bookmarks from friends and strangers to see patterns, learn something new, or build something different.

It is this openness, this lack of adherence to a single purpose, that provides the inherent power behind many web 2.0 technologies. The "crowd" effect.

The consequence is that some new technologies fly, some don't. People try them, experiment to see what they can be used for, and develop patterns of usage. "Best practices" if you like.

Patti Anklam points this out in her comment and suggests this is the pattern that will evolve within corporations as well. However, I am not so optimistic.

The problem is that people's inherent curiosity and tendency to experiment is offset by the corporation's narrow focus on productivity. Corporate IT organizations work very hard to avoid duplication or wasted effort. Any new technology requires a rather lengthy and thorough review and justification. The mantra of "return on investment" (ROI) is used to weed out "needless"or unproductive innovation. A similar ethic affects the individual employees' activities as well.

I have already written about the problems with ROI when evaluating KM technologies and processes. ROI calculations are dependent on existing supply chain processes which are, by definition ("chain"), linear. It is hard to justify an entirely new process, unless it plugs directly into the business's value chain and therefore can have a direct monetary effect. And if you are improving or replacing an existing process, the ROI is calculated only on its impact on that process -- not on any ancillary benefits.

The consequence is that most business applications are designed to be one-dimensional -- focused solely on supporting the one process it is designed for. And a measurable process at that. Any ancillary value is ignored or even deliberately designed out of the product to preserve the focus on the main process. A proposal for new technologies that breed unique usage models not directly tied to business revenue is the essentially dead on arrival.

Even the "all in one" applications that claim to handle a variety of business needs -- such as Microsoft SharePoint and Lotus Notes -- do so in a very one dimensional way. Just as someone with a hammer sees everything as a nail, these applications see all business problems as a single technical issue. In the case of SharePoint, everything is either a list or a document. Yes, the latest version "supports" blogs and wikis, but only in as much as they can be seen as a SharePoint list. So the SharePoint "blog" is wrapped in the same site mechanics and security mechanisms as any other SharePoint entity.

The end result is that the standard business process for designing and/or choosing software is totally antithetical to the multidimensional nature of web 2.0. There is no room for experimentation -- especially the possibility of failure. Which is what causes so many problems for IT folk when they consider adopting web 2.0 within the firewall. What business process does it support? How do we measure success if there is no primary usage? If its true value can only be seen when it is used by large numbers of people, how do you pilot it?

The fact is that current business practices are so bent on performance and efficiency, there is no room for the serendipitous discovery that forms a key foundation of many web 2.0 technologies. As much as I would like to think they could be implemented and allowed to grow organically within the corporate firewall, there are too many forces that will stunt their growth or try to judge them before they develop sufficiently. In the short term, web 2.0 within the firewall is most likely to be successful only where there is an avid and sufficiently powerful advocate willing to take the chance and deflect any questions about value and cost.

1 comment:

Patti said...

I'm happy to be included in this important conversation. Andrew, your post reminds me of what must by now be a classic debate about Enterprise 2.0 between Andrew McAfee and Tom Davenport at last year's Enterprise 2.0 conference. Corporations will need to control and manage their intellectual property and they must enable innovation and connectivity.

There will always be tension at the boundary between the known and the unknown. I agree wholeheartedly with Andrew's concluding comment that it takes a credible, passionate advocate in an organization to get the stuff inside the firewall where its value can emerge.