Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wisdom of the Crowds in the Enterprise

People have been talking a lot lately about enterprise 2.0. Heck, people have been talking about Enterprise 3.0 and we haven't even taken advantage of 2.0 yet. And I don't know if we ever fully will. When people talk about Web 2.0 features, I see them fall into two broad categories; technology and social design.

On the technology side of Web 2.0 we have AJAX and RIA frameworks. These new tools have allowed designers and developers to create much more inviting, intuitive and responsive web applications. While they may have been around in some form or another before Web 2.0 they first started catching on at the same time as the social features of Web 2.0. That's mostly just a timing issue. The new technologies would have caught on eventually, but the idea of social networking just happened to come about at the same time. The technologies are spreading through enterprise applications now and have been for a few years, but what about the social aspects?

When I first start thinking about the social aspects of public web sites, I think about the specific features. There is tagging to organize data. There are the communication mediums of blogs, comments on everyone and everything. You can rate the content to let others know if you like it. Most importantly is that by using those features together the group will benefit as a whole by identifying the best content available and making it better. Tagging allows other people to find content faster. Comments, blogs and other communication conveys new ideas to others on how to improve existing and new content and allow anyone in the community to create content. Ratings tell other people which content is worth while and which can be ignored. We use the wisdom of other people to create better content for our communities which attracts more people to those communities. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Most of us knew that already and, yes, some of the ideas of social networking have made it into enterprise applications. Tagging is a better way of organizing information. Blogging has helped many companies become more transparent. Even ratings have been introduced to try to help organize business information. And while the systems have been implemented, I have found more often than not, they are nowhere near as effective as the same features in public facing web sites. The truth is that those systems in the enterprise are not benefiting from the wisdom of the crowds anywhere near as much as the same features in the wild. What I have seen is that policies or habits of the work place prevent workers from taking advantage of 2.0 features.

The reasons are many. One is that only authorized people should be allowed to make changes because that is their job. Another is that employees don't feel that their work should be rated and visible to all. Some companies have policies geared to keep clients ignorant of the deals they each get so as to maximize sales. They go on and on but the commonality is that barriers are built up that keep the crowds from convening.

Maybe the problem is that businesses just aren't ready to be transparent. Companies try to maximize their sales by not publishing information so they can segment their clients. But, the crowds will only gather when as much information is available for clients to speak about. I find it naive to think that a company can keep people that ignorant in this day and age. The worst case will be that the crowd forms anyway outside of the watchful eye of the company that is the focus for the group.

Individuals and environments inside the companies also need to change. When employees are more worried about how their poor performance will be judged instead of jumping at the chance to receive feedback, improve their work, and then shine; I can only think that either people are lazy or that the corporate atmosphere is just all wrong. Maybe they are one and the same. If you are only hiring lazy people, it may be time to raise the bar just a little. Lower performing people are not necessarily bad to have, people that do not improve are.

And that is the real problem. Companies need to change to take advantage of these technologies. Where the bottom line is concerned, I don't know that a change will necessarily be better than the old ways of running companies. But I suspect it will be; look at where the old way has gotten us. I also have a strong suspicion that a half and half approach will yield the worst results. Community tools without communities seem to have the same problem as healthy cupcakes to me.

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