Enterprise 2.0 - Letting hypertext out of its box

April 24, 2007 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

Image In his Mar 26, 2006 post, Putting Enterprise 2.0 in Perspective, Mike Gotta agrees with Tom Davenport and Andrew McAfee that a balanced discussion of E2.0 should include "... how well an enterprise addresses the complex organizational dynamics that often inhibit change," not just "irrational exuberance regarding the technology."

That said, Mike has a slight disagreement with Andrew McAfee on the evolutionary versus revolutionary nature of E2.0 technology. McAfee says:

"My optimism, and my interest in the component technologies of E2.0, comes not (solely) from my inherent geekiness, but from the fact that these technologies really are something new under the sun. They’re not extensions or enhancements to previous generations of corporate tools for collaboration and knowledge management; instead, they’re radical departures from them. Technology platforms that are initially freeform and eventually emergent, that require no nerd skills to use, and that contain the SLATES elements I proposed a while back were born on the Internet just a couple years ago, and are now starting to make their way behind the firewall." - Andrew McAfee, I STILL Agree with Tom, And yet …

Gotta replies: ".. Tools emerging under the category of social software are benefiting from common application, infrastructure and network services that were not mature in the eighties and nineties. ... It is true that originally Notes was a self-contained environment (some would call it monolithic). Notes came with its own infrastructure, complete with its own repository and even dial capabilities for mobile users. At the time, directory, storage and other infrastructure services were not readily accessible to applications in any consistent fashion. Today, we would not engineer a product in that manner but there was no other option back then."

Gotta concludes: "Today, we have a new set of design criteria that allows us to focus on the social aspects of how people work together, share information and communicate across groups and networks. That design criteria exploits a more mature collection of application, infrastructure and networking services. Much of E.20 technology is evolutionary and in some ways, inevitable."

Characteristically, I agree with both of them. With Andrew, I believe there is a "radical departure" that distinguishes E2.0 technology from Lotus Notes, Groupwise, Intermedia, Hypercard, FRESS, Augment, HES and every other groupware and hypertext system. With Mike, I agree that: "As lower-level services become taken for granted, designers and developers are able to focus on software that exposes functionality that we now call 'Enterprise 2.0'."

I believe that the radical departure is the Web as the context of work: the universal medium, universal library, universal marketplace, and universal platform for personal as well as enterprise communication. After the rapid adoption of the read-mostly Web, we've seen the first use and rapid evolution of the Web as a platform for self and social expression.

Why not for work? I have nothing against new forms of self and social expression as emergent behavior in the workplace, but how about using Enterprise 2.0 technology for the every day work required to design, build, sell and maintain a product or deliver a service?

I believe the primary barrier to Enterprise 2.0 adoption for an established business purpose is The 9X Email Problem rather than hierarchy and a command and control mindset. And I believe that the Web as the context for work is what surmounts the 9X problem by exposing almost all of the relevant working communication and context to search, links, authoring, tags, extensions, and signals (McAfee's SLATES, see his 2006 Enterprise 2.0 the Dawn of Emergent Collaboration).

In every previous generation hypertext system from HES through Lotus Notes, the ability to read, search, link and communicate came with a terrible price: it might work well, but only if you put everything you wanted to work with into some sealed box, and convince everyone you wanted to work with to use the same box. From the earliest days of Vannevar Bush's Memex, the vision was universal, but implementations were a siloed. As Ted Nelson once said on the folly of using computers to simulate paper, Xerox PARC's paper simulation was followed by Apple's contribution:

"By tying little pictures of paper to files and the programs that created the files - Apple made things even worse. Now, instead of programs designed to work with just about any kind of file - mixing, matching and combining actions to do what people want - you have:

  • A program, and
  • A software company that owns the program
  • For every kind of file

Not just a simulation of paper, but multiple, incompatible simulations of paper!"

But the Web over the universal Internet turned the world-view of Lotus Notes (and the Sharepoint stack) inside out: no proprietary client, no proprietary representation, no requirement to work inside the proprietary box - and every motivation to make anything valuable you create or deliver compatible with the least common denominator representation outside the box: URL addressable HTML.

Core Web technology is not radical: http, HTML and the first generation of read / write web browsers and web servers could have been layered over the first generation DARPANet in the 1970's. Berners-Lee's URL and HTML Web framework is simpler than the corporate point-to-point communication infrastructure that preceded it (PROFS anybody?), and much simpler than the hypertext systems of the 1980's and 90's.

Enterprise 2.0 tools work because they use the basic Web as a platform that does not limit discourse, and can make the content of even the most specialized line of business systems more valuable by linking to them in context. For example, market forces drive makers of ERP systems, CAD repositories and analytic systems to at least make their content viewable and linkable using the Web. That's all that's necessary to add a link from a blog or wiki to a contextually relevant object or report. Search, links, authoring, tags, extensions and signals provide a mechanism for "weak signal amplification" and discovery that works even at internet scale, and can work at the intranet scale as the enterprise becomes a link friendly environment.

With appropriate attention to consistent identity and permissioned access, the same principles open up working communication between the internal stakeholders of an enterprise and their external customers, suppliers, resellers, clients, sponsors and advisors - all for goal directed behavior that even the most hardheaded manager can understand as valid and a potential competitive advantage.

For thoughts on extending SLATES technologies with permissioned access to internal and external stakeholders, see Why Can't a Business Work More Like the Web? (.pdf), and Flip Test 1971 | Email versus Journal

For more on Ted Nelson, see John Markoff's Jan 11, 2008 NY Times profile In Venting, a Computer Visionary Educates and Ted's own words in his newly published book Geeks Bearing Gifts: How the Computer World Got this Way.