Web 2.0 tools and technologies are well established in the consumer world in the form of social software such as blogs, wikis, forums, and social networking sites, and are also increasingly being used in the business environment. However, the move to bring social software into the enterprise raises questions of how, why, and whether it should happen.
The term Enterprise 2.0 was coined by Andrew McAcfee of the Harvard Business School in the spring 2006 edition of the MIT Sloan Management Review. It refers to the use of social software, which is enabled by Web 2.0 technologies in the enterprise, and the organisational and cultural changes that are needed to use it.
Social software is becoming an issue for organisations. There is rising concern about clogged networks and lost productivity from employee use of sites like Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube during work hours. There are also discussions about whether access should be banned, and acceptable usage policies. The same scenario greeted e-mail, MP3 files, and instant messaging. But ignoring or blanket banning of social software is to miss some important business opportunities. Can you imagine doing business without e-mail? And it will do nothing for employee morale, which always seeps out of the business and ultimately impacts customer satisfaction.
For businesses, the challenge is to identify what aspects of social software have value in the business context. The problem is that what has value in one area is not the same as in another. Accessing YouTube or Facebook might look like a waste of time from a business productivity perspective, but for a product design or marketing department it could provide valuable insight into consumer thinking and attitudes, and which topics and devices are on the rise. This unstructured information can then be gathered, structured, and used within the organisation to improve the design and engineering process, for example. Equally it can inform marketing, highlighting right and wrong directions, brand perception, customer satisfaction/dissatisfaction levels, and even identify prospective competitors.
Blogs can open up a new channel for interaction, not only with external customers but also with internal employees. Wikis can become a central information repository for unstructured information that employees can contribute to and in doing so uncover previously hidden information. RSS feeds enable users to define what is important to them can change the way information is consumed.
The common design themes of Enterprise 2.0 are user-generated content, interaction, and collaboration. The structure, if you could call it that, swaps the static command-and-control type operation of the original World Wide Web for a form of dynamic equality and individualism. The challenge for businesses is to manage the unstructured in a structured way so it can be put to use in the business.
It is early days and everyone is feeling their way. One possible starting place in determining what to use and how to use it is to classify the new technologies according to their type and data source. That may sound like a contradiction to the whole concept of Web 2.0, but it could provide a starting point.
Blogs, wikis, forums and social networks are overtly collaborative technologies. They deal in unstructured data and only have value to the users who participate in them either by writing, reading, or responding because they have an interest in the topic. They are best used for identifying and tracking emerging issues, making them valuable in creative areas like design and marketing, and in support, user experience, and customer interaction management. The technology behind social networks can be used within organisations and between partner organisations to uncover the business equivalent of 'six degrees of separation'. These networks could yield the connection or recommendation to enable someone to get that critical sales meeting with the relevant person in a particular organisation, for example.
Other technologies such as RSS feeds and application mash-ups, deal with structured information from existing data sources. They can be beneficial to users on an individual level because they enable them to customise their own user experience, which should lead to improved efficiency and increased productivity.
Many of the end results of social software could be achieved with 'old style' technology like Lotus Notes. The difference is that Web 2.0 technologies make everything from creation to consumption easier, more intuitive and more accessible. Rather than passively receiving, users can actively participate and do it using the same type of tools they have chosen to use in their personal life rather than possibly clunky 'business' applications. Businesses are littered with software that is deemed a failure because of poor user adoption.
A company can use social software internally among employees and partners, and externally among its customer base. The technology exists; businesses just need the imagination to use it.