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Why workers can't get beyond e-mail

'Enterprise 2.0' helps explain why a transformative wave of office technology is largely a washout.

December 14, 2009|By Richard Waters

For techno-enthusiasts, the failure of Web 2.0 to have a bigger effect on everyday working life is something of a puzzle.

Social networks, blogs and wikis have already changed the way millions of people communicate and share information online in their personal lives. But when it comes to work, these technologies generally are unused. E-mail still has a virtual monopoly.

It is not for want of trying. John Chambers, chief executive of Cisco Systems Inc., several years ago took to forecasting a coming corporate productivity boom spurred by workplace use of new online "collaboration" tools that had their origins in Web 2.0.

Some of the same technologies used to create successful Web services such as Facebook, Wikipedia and Twitter would make it easier for workers to find and connect with colleagues. They could become more productive or share knowledge and communicate more efficiently.

Enterprise 2.0 -- the term Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business and author of a book of the same name, has used to describe this hoped-for boom -- is still a dream.

As with the "knowledge management" fad that preceded it, the availability of the technology has yet to unblock the well-springs of collaboration and creativity about which its proponents dreamed.

McAfee helps explain why -- though he remains a firm believer in a coming transformative wave of workplace technology, despite the evidence to the contrary.

McAfee correctly identifies the biggest reason for slow adoption: the resistance of individual workers to new ways of doing things that do not yield substantial and clear advantages to them. If e-mail gets the job done, why look further?

What McAfee does not explain is why these same people have been so much more ready to dive into the Web 2.0 world of YouTube and Facebook in their personal lives.

It is probably a result of the social forces at work. When your friends start to connect on a social network, the impetus to join them is overwhelming. That pull usually does not exist at work, however strong the practical arguments for being more open to colleagues.

There are other, deeper reasons behind the delayed arrival of Enterprise 2.0. As McAfee rightly says, Web 2.0 technologies are inherently egalitarian -- they rely on treating each contribution equally, regardless of corporate hierarchy. That makes them a threat.

E-mail is the most commonly used form of communication for a reason. It is not just a highly convenient way of communicating information, it is also the perfect tool for managers to issue edicts without fear of contradiction.

Others have learned to use e-mail to their advantage too. For instance, it provides a way for frustrated workers to vent their feelings from the isolation of their cubicles, or for blame-shifters, through the use of "cc-ing," to implicate others in their failings.

Any number of workplace pathologies are routinely nurtured through e-mail. How to break out of this cycle is a cultural challenge, not a technological one.

McAfee seems to recognize as much -- though he still cannot resist the idea that, somehow, the technology really can make the office a better place.

He imagines a company where "people have ample opportunity to express themselves, to share their knowledge, and to be helpful to colleagues no matter how remotely or weakly tied they are."

It is a place where bosses listen to good ideas that come from below, where fellow workers share their best ideas with colleagues without fear of rejection or credit-stealing.

No doubt there are enlightened workplaces that operate like this. But the use of new "social" technologies provides little reason on its own to believe that, for the majority of workers, the promised land will arrive any sooner.

Richard Waters is a San Francisco-based editor for the Financial Times, in which this review first appeared.

Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization's Toughest Challenges

Andrew McAfee

Harvard Business Press, 240 pp, $29.95

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