Riding the wave

Some themes are starting to emerge about how best to travel the enterprise 2.0 journey. The main lesson seems to be to chill out and give it a go.

Much was made in 2007 of the rise of social networking driven by web 2.0 and its office-worker cousin enterprise 2.0. This theme trickled from Silicon Valley into the local conference circuit with increasing force during the year. It looks set to grow further in 2008, kicking off with an Enterprise 2.0 Executive Forum being held in Sydney on 19 February by Ross Dawson's Future Exploration Network. It should reveal some tangible examples of enterprise 2.0 in action, which will be welcomed by all with an interest in this topic. Cochlear was last year's star example, with its use of wikis for collaboration in product development and marketing activities worldwide. A leading public sector example is GovDex, the collaborative portal operated by the Australian Government Information Management Office to encourage sharing between government agencies. Telstra has made extensive use of wikis and blogs to engage in dialogues with its customers and its staff during the year.

Some themes are starting to emerge about how best to travel the enterprise 2.0 journey. The main lesson seems to be to chill out and give it a go. Start small and light, utilising a real business need, encourage open communication and let emergent behaviours run. Avoid over-engineering, empty or inactive wiki spaces,'corporate-speak' content and the temptation to exercise traditional IT-centric control enthusiasms over users.

Enterprise 2.0 empowers and engages people when compared to the static intranet in the same way that the iPod does when compared to the CD Walkman. Light-weight, cool, easy to use and because you have more song-by-song control over the content you feel more engaged. It's more personal.

I see enterprise 2.0 as a genuine opportunity for technology to act as a catalyst for changes in organisational culture. Let's face it, most of our organisations are ready for something new in terms of ways of working. Something that rekindles the excitement for new ideas that we had earlier in our careers and the passion that comes with opportunities to express them. Formal organisations have done much to stifle this excitement with their hierarchy, divisions of labour and complexity.

Enterprise 2.0 is emerging as the most practical way of sharing and managing knowledge in a range of contexts, from team collaboration spaces to customer self-service forums. The root of its power to create culture change however, is its ability to unleash the personal power of informal networks.

These networks exist in all organisations, fuelled by mutual self interest or just a desire for comradeship and intellectual stimulation. The architecture of participation created by profiles, wikis, blogs and forums can lubricate the interactions that drive social networks, encouraging'showing and sharing' and boosting collaboration. It can also make informal networks and their contributions more visible.

Can informal networks be 'formalised' by enterprise 2.0 platforms? Can the pulling power of informal networks be harnessed more directly to the wagon of the organisation's mission?

Informal networks are funny things though aren't they? They can be hard to see, dynamic and ad hoc. The formalised informal network is an oxymoron, exemplified by the matrix organisation. The art of enterprise 2.0 is to create platforms for self expression that serve useful organisational purposes; but not in ways that cook the golden goose of energy and innovation that stems from network informality.

We should think of informal networks as similar to our peripheral vision. The retinas of our eyes contain two different types of cells; cones for our main, straight-ahead vision and rods for peripheral vision. The interesting thing is that the rods are 100 times more sensitive to light than the cones. You can avoid tripping over when walking at night by not looking directly at where you are going because you are using your more sensitive peripheral vision.

Informal networks provide organisational peripheral vision. They cut through the day-to-day nonsense, enabling more sensitive situational awareness, breakthrough thinking and access to the subtle levers of organisational change. Shining the bright lights of the formal organisational machinery on them however, just dazzles the eyes and destroys the night vision.

Enterprise 2.0 as a topic belongs with business-focused leaders, tuned in to their organisation's pulse and looking for ways to give hope and opportunity to the next generation of innovators. It is about using technology to support the art and vision of leadership and the creation of organisational fabric.

It is not an 'IT thing' and, (at least in the first instance), is not something to be managed and controlled.

Think about how you could drive the deployment of a collaborative forum, wiki or blog in your organisation this year to mobilise and channel the creative energies of some like-minded souls. It's a leadership thing. Make it happen.

Dr Steve Hodgkinson is research director public sector for Ovum in Melbourne.