Tag Archives: Corporate Culture

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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Building on sand

I’ve just come to understand one of the core differences between IT and medicine: most medics know how to arrive at a conclusion based on evidence but most people working in Business and IT don’t.  As a result far too many decisions in Business and IT are based on something that looks like evidence, sounds like evidence, but actually isn’t evidence.  And I don’t know about you, but I find that slightly sickening.  

What’s my evidence for this view? (Ha!) It’s an internal document I’ve just been reading which says:

A conservative estimate of £10m p.a. colleague efficiency savings would be realised through deploying SuperSystem to 25,000 users across the organisation.

It includes no references. There’s no way for me to come to my own conclusion. No links to any validatable and verifiable studies showing what savings have been achieved elsewhere.  Da nada.  Nothing.  As a reader, I have to trust the writer’s judgement.  The older I get, the less I like that.

It’s not just a matter of being given the evidence though.  It’s a matter of being able to evaluate it.  Consider this from a campaigning website:

Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO) is a colorless and odorless chemical compound, also referred to by some as Dihydrogen Oxide, Hydrogen Hydroxide, Hydronium Hydroxide, or simply Hydric acid. Its basis is the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, a species shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. The atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds such as Sulfuric Acid, Nitroglycerine and Ethyl Alcohol.

Now if you’ve an iota of common sense you’d want it banned, wouldn’t you?  Ha! Fooled ya (unless you were paying attention in chemistry lessons of course).  It’s water.  The DHMO site is there to show how easy it is to baffle with pseudo-scientific bull.

In Business and IT this is done all the time.   I’ve done it myself.  I’ve found some statistics that seem to support my case and bunged them on to a slide with a footnote saying “Source: Gartner” or wherever.  It’s an empty ritual: no-one makes any pretence of reading the study or critically evaluationg Gartner’s data and conclusions.  We go through the ritual so we can all pretend we’re being objective and rigorous, but in fact we’re not.

This flaccid acceptance of rubbish is widespread.  Some time ago I was in a meeting where the discussion went as follows:

Bloke: Our target is that 80% of balls will be blue
Ben: So that means they’re pie-bald and 80% of the surface of each ball will be blue?
Bloke: Er, 80% of the balls will be blue
Ben: Oh I see – you mean that for every 100 balls, 80 of them will be entirely blue?
Bloke: (Snarling) … It’s just a turn of phrase…

It was all I could do not to snarl back “No it isn’t a turn of phrase – it’s a number” but the other people in the meeting weren’t interested.  Which only goes to prove my point, really.  

Imprecision, innumeracy, lack of scepticism, lack of critical thinking, call it what you will: it lures us in to blarney and over-optimism.    Yes, it’s hard to be rigorous and objective because in Business and IT by and large we don’t have standardised tools like double blind controlled trials to base our decisons on.  There are exceptions of course, like the the rules-based numeracy required of accountants and the occasionally rigorous testing of direct marketing campaigns.  But neither of those apply to the world of IT.  

Wherever we work, we cannot give up the responsibility of using our brains and for seeking out and using the best analysis and measurement tools we can find.  The problem is too many people charged with making decisons lack the habit of critical thinking which you need to cut through this sort of fluff.  It’s a cultural issue too: why was I the only person in the meeting who was outraged that a proverb was presented as a metric?  Because I don’t work for an engineering company, for a start.   Finally, the fact that it’s difficult is no excuse for giving up entirely and relying on “street smarts” “judgement” “instinct” or “gut”.  It was gut instinct that led medics to grind up spiders with dung and rub them in to people’s eyes to cure blindness.

Corporate Culture – more than just yoghurt

The Character of a Corporation

I’m sifting through books I’ve bought for my MSc, sorting the ones I’ll keep from the ones I’ll resell on Amazon.  One of the keepers was part of my Change Management module, and is a book by Goffee and Jones and called The Character of a Corporation.

It’s about the glue that holds teams together – is it friendship, or is it vision?  Goffee and Jones consider it’s a combination of both.  For some teams, departments and even companies what holds them together is sociability: friendship, chit-chat, and helping out because you know and like the person who asked and they’ve helped you out in the past.  Other teams, departments, companies are glued together by a shared focus on goals and objectives, on hitting deadlines and targets, on getting the job done.  Goffee and Jones call this solidarity.

I’ve worked on every kind of team they mention, on “Networked” teams, “Mercenary” ones, a couple of “Communal” ones and the odd “Fragmented” team that isn’t really a team at all, so the book was full of “ahah” moments from start to finish.   It explained how some of my previous bosses thought, not to mention the odd colleague.  The very odd colleague, in some cases.

It’s got a good academic pedigree, but it’s an easy read.  What more could a girlie-swot want from a book?  Definitely a keeper.