How will the corporation subvert Web 2.0?

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom

It’s an exciting idea, the way that Web 2.0 will transform the world of work, making collaboration the norm by providing wikis, bosses opening up dialogues by posting blogs that are open for comments, replacing meetings with discussion boards.

But before we get to that nirvana, we will have to live with the worrying answers to the question ‘how will the corporation subvert Web 2.0’

In the long term the Luddites always lose. In the long term the organisations which embrace Web 2.o will over-take those which resist it, just as Amazon has flooded out the bookshops and iTunes and Spotify have all but destroyed the the record companies.

What worries me, is the nature of that embrace.

Web 2.0, briefly, comprises the tools and attitudes that enable me to blog and enable you to rate my post and comment on it.  It’s FaceBook and Twitter and citizen journalism and mash-ups and crowd-sourcing and ‘Here comes everybody’.  It’s MySpace instead of A&R  It’s Wikipedia instead of the Brittanica. It’s Twitter instead of… well… instead of no Twitter. Web 2.0, so we all thought, is a force for democracy and good.  It cuts out the parasitical middle-person, it empowers individuals and enables them to form groups and enables those groups to face down corporations and governments.  It puts artists directly in touch with their audience. It enables me to publish this and you to read it with no more cost than our time. It turns base metal into gold and chocolate into a slimming aid.

There are, it seems, two current views of what happens when Web 2.0 meets the Enterprise.  In the first view, Web 2.0 brings about innovative, hierarchically flat organisations where knowledge is freely shared, where anyone who comes up with a bright idea can get it aired and taken up, where discussion boards pwn meetings and where gatekeepers and barriers to innovation are no more.  Google is reported to be just such a place.  The other view is that Web 2.0 and the enterprise are oil and water:  executives and managers will resist Web 2.0 either because they don’t get it, because they think it is a distraction, or because they are just plain running scared.

But I am not convinced by either.  Web 2.0, combined with an internal search engine, are powerful surveillance tools.  Any well-governed Wiki will tell you exactly who made which changes when, and far more neatly than you can track the changes in Word.   You can capture Instant Messenger logs and run searches on them in a way which you cannot tape and search conversations by the water cooler.  Nobody minutes meetings any more, but a discussion forum can be there for as long and the server farm lasts and longer.

Web 2.0 facilitates networks and interactions, but it also makes them more visible, and therefore easier to track.  We already know that the web is destroying privacy.  These days it takes diligence, vigilance and consistency to hide in cyberspace.  It is hard not have your name published by other people when school mates tag you on photos in FaceBook.

So it is surprising that hierarchical organisations don’t espouse Web 2.0 tools more actively, and this supports the theory that this is because execs and managers just don’t get it.

As something of a Web 2.0 evangelist, that places me on the horns of a dilemma.  A trilemma, actually. Do I:

  1. promote Web 2.o tools because they empower people and democratise knowledge
  2. stop promoting Web 2.0 tools because they expose people by turning situations which they are used to considering private into permanent searchable records or
  3. use the argument that they can improve audit and accountability in order to get them into an organisation because they are just so flippin’ COOOL?

For some of the thinking that led me to this impasse see:
Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom – Matthew Fraser & Soumitra Dutta

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8 responses to “How will the corporation subvert Web 2.0?

  1. Coming from a social activist background rather than a corporate one, I’m firstly interested in whether you used the term Luddite in its popular meaning of a person who rejects technology because they don’t understand it, or a person who has a complex social and political analysis of technology and how it should be used that doesn’t agree with the capitalist agenda 😉

    In terms of your dilemma (I don’t really understand the third option), also coming from an activist background, I’d be inclined to present the whole truth (as much as that is possible) to people – tell them the upside of Web 2.0 and the down side, and promote intelligent use of the tools in context.

    I’d also like to see intelligent promotion of online privacy protection. Mostly I just see people now saying ‘oh anyone can find out who you are if they really want to’, which is not that helpful. So maybe promote skills to manage Web 2.0 engagement in differing ways for differing needs. Is anyone teaching this stuff within workplaces? Or are people just having to figure it out?

    • Hello Kea, and welcome to my blog.

      You ask how I’m using the term ‘Luddite’ and it’s neither of the above! I’m using it as an historical reference to the weavers who protested against technological advances which upset the status quo and took away their livelihoods. So I guess it’s nearer your second option than your first. I have a huge sympathy for luddites because anything which provides an economic advantage always wins.

      My third option is entirely cynical – it is to promote them because I find them shiny-shiny-cool things, and disregard the social consequences.

      Your suggestions around educating people about on-line privacy are good ones.

  2. Aagh! I should be asleep in bed now, but as always, Ben, your blog entries force my neurons into override.. Some day I’m going to send you a bill…

    I’m not sure what the real difference between options 1 and 3 are – in business, expected benefits are easy to unearth so long as you don’t have to do the hard work of proving them to be true.

    Nevertheless this has sparked off something – probably a propos of nothing and very likely half-baked.

    The enterprise is there, not necessarily because of the communications technology in use, but because the principal commodity being dealt with is in short supply. So whenever you are dealing with precious or semi-precious commodities, you will see organisations develop. You will see competition and structure. Some organisations will inevitably grow very large while others survive (or die) on the crumbs.

    That’s the problem with the music business for example. Big, complex organisations were possible when the content was
    limited. Now that the content is freely available, these organisations are withering. Same with newspapers, and eventually the same may happen to the movie industry. If they can’t exploit the scarce, then where are they? If they can identify and exploit limited resources, whether it be bound by physical attributes, or time, or talent, then organisation remains possible.

    If Web 2.0 faciliates the exploitation of the scarce, and improves the company’s competitive positioning, then it will help those organisations. If it is focused on the wrong things, or does nothing to better exploit the scarce, then nothing much will result, and the results may even be damaging.

    Co-ordinating the rollout of Web 2.0 with the central strategy of the organisation seems to be the most vital ingredient.

    But then again, it’s late and I might regret what I have just written in the morning.

    • At first I thought you were bang on the money, Colm, when you say that co-ordinating Web 2.0 with the central strategy of the organisation is vital.

      But what I’m not clear about in my own mind is whether the web 2.0 tools we take for granted will acquire the same status as Outlook and MS Office. No-one now would say that their use should be co-ordinated with the central strategy of the organisation. I’m not sure whether Web 2.0 will achieve the same standing.

      Hmmmm. In the short-term you are right, but in the longer term….?

      You’ve returned the favour and given me something to think about, and it’s 23:19 on a school-night.

  3. I’m not sure I really get the privacy thing. Obviously web 2.0 things are not private. People who use them as though they are are just kidding themselves, I reckon.

    Although I suppose there wasn’t anything theoretically stopping Them from reading our post and listening into all of our calls, but when that happens it does feel outrageous. Hmmm. I expect that was just logistics rather than morality though. And disinterest by the people running the phone service and such.

    But then in some countries even that was monitored. Interesting, isn;t it, that we condem it in the name of communism but condone it in the name of business.

    • Well, I’ve always felt the same, and assumed that every key-stroke was routed via Cheltenham, but then I spent a decade selling networking kit including sniffers and loggers and even data encrypters so I knew that none of it was private.

      Dual standards, eh? I like them, but not in other people. 😉

  4. In education, the Luddites are banning most web2.0 tools. These are the techies who used to have the power and now can’t keep up with what educationlly works. Web 2.0 has all sorts of applications which empower the learners. They (techies) also can’t see that banning the Internet prevents us (teachers) from educating the students in how to deal with online safety. We can’t educate them if we haven’t got access in schools!

  5. Hot damn! To think, I was envying you what you’re doing with the tools, Jasmine.

    Who is doing the banning? Is it the techies or the people running education? It’s clearly not the teachers.

    Thanks for dropping by and posting.

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