Dealing with social in the enterprise

The theme at this year’s FASTForward conference is the “user revolution.” Don Tapscott gave a nod to Time Magazine’s selection of “You” as the person of the year in 2006 as part of his keynote Monday evening. References to Facebook, Flickr, and Wikipedia have been rampant throughout the general sessions and in hallway conversations. The question that remains unasked and, thus, unanswered is “how are things different inside the enterprise.”

One obvious difference is scale. Applications and services on the net have the entire population of net users to draw from. The 1/9/90 heuristic works nicely on the scale of the net as a whole. Inside the enterprise, the rule suggests that implementation efforts need to consciously manage participation and activity to compensate for the smaller population.

The second important difference arises from the need to manage participation within the enterprise rather than capitalize solely on “natural” participants. This collides with the aspects of the enterprise that substitute artificial order for natural order. Large-scale enterprises explicitly design roles and responsibilities to address task requirements in a controlled fashion.

While organizational researchers and designers have been pointing out the limitations of control thinking for much of the last 20-30 years (if not more), the reality in enterprises is that control remains central to enterprise DNA. While insightful folks like Andrew McAfee identify the importance of emergence in the successful uptake of Enterprise 2.0 technologies, I think they tend to downplay the barriers created by the reliance on control. When McAfee talks about the importance of culture in successful Enterprise 2.0 efforts, he is fundamentally talking about enterprises that have managed to move past classical models of control. What makes this such a challenge is the extent to which these models are unarticulated or regarded as axiomatic.