Chapter 1: Introduction – Web 2.0 Knowledge Technologies and the Enterprise

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Introduction

An irregular heartbeat is a common consequence of heart attacks and can be fatal. In the 1980s a drug called encainide was routinely used to reduce this risk by suppressing such arrhythmia. It was logical to assume that since this drug induced a regular heart rhythm, it automatically reduced the chance of a further heart attack: in fact the opposite was true and the drug was responsible for a significant number of deaths and did not even improve the health of those who lived. This only came to light when evidence was collected in randomised clinical trials. Similarly, although there is convincing logic that it must work, the common orthopaedic process of arthroscopic cleansing of arthritic knees by washing out the joint with fluid has also been found through clinical trials to have no impact whatsoever. Both are cases where the intervention seemed ‘common sense’ and so the treatments were taken as the received wisdom. Both applied simple logic to a limited set of premises within a biological framework and came to compelling but wrong conclusions, conclusions that were only belatedly tested because of their apparent obviousness.

Common sense and logic tell us that the technologies known as ‘Web 2.0’ are destined for success in the corporate environment. McKinsey go so far as to say that Web 2.0 tools may exceed enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and supply chain management systems in improving productivity through greater participation and collaboration.1 They are a simple, fast, effective, cheap and useful treatment for several ailments afflicting corporations. They also appear to be the right tools to manage the increasingly fragmented, global information workplace of networked, virtual enterprises. But although there are case studies of successful implementations, generally published by vendors and consulting firms, there is still relatively little independent review or measurement of improvement. And more fundamentally, how are we to conceptualise ‘success’? We need to ask ourselves whether the perspectives we are using to measure success actually cope with or reveal the data we need to judge success. When astronomical theory (largely driven by religious premises) presented the earth as the centre of the solar system, data that contradicted this (such as irregularities in planetary orbits) was catered for by the creation of additional loops (or ‘epicycles’) by planets circling the earth. This Ptolemaic astronomy was refined and extended until the theory was simply no longer sustainable. In our examples of failed medical expectations, biological logic told us that the knees and hearts would improve, but was wrong. In business, operational logic, which looks at throughput, efficiency, cost and productivity, may be the wrong theory to examine the consequences of the impact of Web 2.0.

So what is ‘Web 2.0’? In essence, it is a mode of participatory interaction via the World Wide Web using a certain type of technology. In contrast to the posthumously baptised ‘Web 1.0’, which was based upon a predetermined client–server relationship between consumers and a managed website, the Web 2.0 mindset is about interactive, conversational co-production of information, products and oneself. Web 2.0 provides a platform of tools for such interaction rather than a predefined set of rules of engagement and outcomes. These tools can be taken in many directions and applied in many ways. The information content is loosely structured and conversational, in contrast to e-commerce marketplaces or business-to-business exchanges, and so Web 2.0 tools are often called ‘social software’. If this is an accurate label, it follows that social theories are needed to understand and perhaps even to manage it, even within corporations. Theories other than transaction cost theory, the balanced scorecard or business process management may be needed to model the interactions between employees and the organisations to which they belong and allow new kinds of performance data to become salient.

The reason for the book

This book is about collaboration, networking and knowledge generation in the time of this second wave of Internet technology. It is based upon the premises that business interactions are increasingly, if not mostly, computer mediated and that new generations of workers find this mode of work natural, intuitive and familiar. Corporations and businesses are struggling however. E-mail, while being the ‘killer application’ of the Internet, is creating many problems of control, management and knowledge loss. Systems by which knowledge is created and shared, modes of authority and legitimation, are changing. The incremental is being replaced by the chaotic, the solid by the fragmented and the software programming journeyman by students and geeks. The underlying technologies are available in the home: familiar, fast, flexible and convenient. But behind the corporate firewall, IT departments and the gatekeepers of software standards, information systems policies and corporate knowledge are playing catch-up.

There are a substantial number of books about the technologies that are collected under the banner of Web 2.0. There are also books on the implications of these technologies for business strategy and in particular for certain professions, for example education and libraries. This book fills the gap between strategy and technology implementation by focusing upon the functional capabilities of Web 2.0 in corporate environments and matching these to specific types of information activity. It takes a resource-based view of the firm: how can the knowledge capabilities and information assets of organisations become better leveraged by using Web 2.0 tools?

The information technology industry is pervasive and epoch defining, yet characterised by hyperbole and failure. It must be made clear to decision-makers what the business benefits of Web 2.0 are, so that business cases can be prepared, plans written, targets defined and progress measured. The challenge in this is that these business benefits occur often at the micro-level. There is generally no specific business process like order entry or inventory management where improvements can be identified and measured. To take the analogy of e-mail: what was the business case for that? What a silly question! The improvements might be so substantial that they are not measurable using the paradigms in place within an organisation at a particular time.

Identifying the underlying benefits therefore requires the use of perspectives beyond profitability, business process effectiveness and cost control. Some of these perspectives are not in the usual business parlance, but when applied, demonstrate the role that can be played by Web 2.0 and how to manage towards these. Transactive memory systems, social uncertainty, identity theory, network dynamics, social constructivism and the demographics of inter-generational change are not normal business language but can be used to clarify Web 2.0 application and potentiality.

This book is therefore directed towards three constituencies:

 the reflective CIO, information manager or knowledge manager who enjoys a fresh perspective on information technology tools;

 the researcher who is looking for frameworks to assess the impact of Web 2.0 on businesses;

 the MBA or MIS student who, as part of the emerging generation of business participants and managers, is seeking to understand how work is to be enhanced with Web 2.0 tools.

The structure of the book

This book is an attempt to locate this new wave of technologies in two major contexts: firstly, the modern business environment of globalisation, hyper-competition, disaggregation, generational change, inter-generational knowledge loss and virtuality; and secondly, the specific social nature of knowledge construction, exchange and application. We are interested in improving the adoption of technologies which improve its utilisation as a productive, generative resource. Without an understanding of how knowledge is built, shared and institutionalised, the potential for these new tools in the business environment cannot be realised.

The technology tools available under the banner of Web 2.0 can play a substantial role in the creation, exchange and storage of organisational knowledge. This is particularly so in the case of new generations of workers with different capabilities and preferences to baby boomers, in the reduction of social and organisational uncertainty, increasing the sensing and awareness capabilities of users and facilitating the development of maps of knowledge, so that knowledge can be found, generated and legitimated by groups who never meet physically.

Given the almost inevitable passage of these new tools into the work environment, this book then presents potential applications and methodologies to support effective implementation. These applications range from building organisational encyclopaedias via wiki technologies, to knowledge capture via multimedia methods, the generation and maintenance of knowledge directories, using personal, managerial and corporate blogs to publish many voices within a firm, and the use of feed readers to reduce the flood of ‘corporate spam’. But this wish-list of functionality, however, will only work if the underlying knowledge processes and constraints are understood. These processes operate differently according to the different types of communicative Web 2.0 spaces which can be created: there are many kinds of communicative space, which have varying flows and pulses, and which are governed by a variety of social institutions and purposes. The processes which build social identity as part of this human communication must also be considered. What is the self-image concept which impels particularly young users towards self-realisation through such tools? The sheer open-endedness of Web 2.0 tools introduces a need for management sophistication – a kind of ‘muscular philosophy’ as it were. The structure of the book mirrors the structure of this argument.

Chapter 2 explains in detail the meaning of the ‘Web 2.0’ and defines the various tools and technologies which are currently regarded as belonging under this umbrella term. While ‘Web 2.0’ has a fuzzy definition based upon a mode of interaction and participation, the respective technologies are quite concrete and recognisable: wikis, blogs and social networking sites are the key systems in which information content is accumulated. These are supported by facilities such as social tagging, really simple syndication (RSS), mashups, AJAX and REST. In this chapter I describe each technology, why it belongs to the idea of Web 2.0 and how it can be part of an overall system of interacting Web 2.0 technologies which combine to manage organisational knowledge.

Chapter 3 analyses the reasons which are commonly presented as being the business imperatives to implement Web 2.0 tools and, in a sense, the management philosophy which accompanies them. These imperatives – the global economy, generational change, network effects, the fragmentation of work and so on – are itemised and discussed. I argue that while they are all important, they are often only conditionally true and should not be (and indeed probably are not) taken as sufficient reasons to implement the tools. Furthermore, they provide only general incentives to adopt the technologies – a clearer understanding of how these tools apply to specific work activity is required.

Chapter 4 presents a framework within which to express the functionality of the tools such that a relationship to a business purpose can be defined and a clearer sense of the application developed. This helps decision-makers conceptualise how to apply the tools, what returns to expect and what constraints will apply. These concepts are those of spaces and flows: the space is the playing area within which certain knowledge activities, or games, with particular rules are carried out. This ‘game’ requires certain infrastructure and has certain formal and informal rules of engagement and behaviour. This behaviour results in knowledge flows through the Web 2.0 tools which will build organisational memory and facilitate knowledge sharing, but under a set of shared expectations and social institutions. I give examples of types of space, such as encyclopaedia, advisory or partner space, which determine what type of activity will occur, what outcomes are expected and how one should behave.

Chapter 5 discusses the movement from space to function. Once one or more spaces have been identified to support a business objective, the information flows within the space need to be identified and articulated. This is a process of analysis and design, but in contrast to traditional systems development, this can proceed with a substantial degree of emergence, autonomy and self-organising on the part of the user group. Once the flows within the space are agreed, the information to be captured and stored should be classified (prescriptive, descriptive, distinctive and emergent) so appropriate treatment of that information can be decided. The specific information objects (wiki pages, blog pages, ratings, tags and so on) need to be identified and in some cases standard layouts defined and then set up for use.

Chapter 6 is about the transition from function to use. It is quite strongly theoretical and takes the position that to get the most from Web 2.0 spaces requires an understanding of how knowledge processes within those spaces work. It may be of more interest to the researcher than the practitioner. Moving on from the notion of spaces and flows, I describe a series of conceptual frameworks with which to understand the advantages of the tools, how to implement the tools within a particular space, how to gain adoption and how to assess the benefits to the organisation. The first concept is that of organisational memory and what is involved in building it and making it accessible. I describe the different types of knowledge that organisations produce, how to manage access to them and which of these might be appropriately managed by Web 2.0. I then look at the social processes of knowledge construction in order to understand how these processes move from face-to-face conversation, meetings, e-mail or phone to the virtual environment of a wiki or a blog and what changes may occur as we do so. The social norms which govern human behaviour are known as institutions: I examine these to understand how we might manage the adoption and use of the tools. These institutions vary between groups, so the social identity of potential users helps us to understand how groups will vary in their attitude to the tools. Finally we examine the role of power in facilitating the adoption of these systems.

Chapter 7 takes the frameworks of Chapters 5 and 6 and builds a methodology for the implementation of Web 2.0 in the enterprise. As stated, the complexity and cost of the technology are not serious impediments with these tools: it is the ‘technologies of the self’ that are important: norms, institutions, social behaviours. And not just of users – managers, customers and partners are part of the overall institutional constellation too. This chapter moves from the definition of a space, its purpose and business benefit, the type of knowledge to be generated and stored within it, to the signposts which help to locate that knowledge subsequently. Then there is the analysis of the social institutions present in the organisation and group, which may hinder or help implementation.

Following the conclusion in Chapter 8, a detailed case study is provided in the appendix which presents lessons from success and failure in using these modern, lightweight collaborative tools.

The basic idea of the book

The tools of the Web 2.0 class, baptised by one senior executive involved in our projects as ‘gunslinger technologies’, are easy to use and present little or no technological challenge to most users. Yet having been involved in several Web 2.0 projects and studied many independently reviewed case studies, it is clear that there are problems with gaining adoption reminiscent of the knowledge management projects of the 1990s. This is even so in cases where there is direct applicability and fast payback. To explain this I would like to take a brief philosophical excursion that leads to the approaches I propose later in the book.

I have developed the view that there is an ‘iron cage’ constraining the participants within the environments where this toolset can be implemented. Managers, knowledge workers and technical specialists see and evaluate the world in terms of what they know, and make decisions and take actions in terms of their various constructed models of reality: the limits to their language are the limits to their world. If tools as simple and effective as those of Web 2.0 are not being adopted, then either they are not seen to be as simple or effective as we think they are, or there are factors in the models of reality which constrain their take-up and use. These factors are not well understood. We need to explain clearly what the tools can be used for and the barriers to productive use.

The first vehicle I use to meet these challenges is that of space: this is a concept derived from social theory and philosophy, but is intuitive enough to be understood and applied by intelligent laymen. It is a ‘boundary object’ which helps conceptualise what one wants to do with the tool and at the same time defines the modes of engagement and behaviour appropriate to using the tool within the space. Essentially, this first notion is about context setting: when we are invited to dinner with the Queen we will behave differently than at a hot dog stand or a business luncheon. We adopt different roles because the stage we are on is of a genre (tragedy, comedy or farce) that demands certain behaviour and linguistic performances: the drama unfolds according to the rules of the genre. Without this context, how is an actor to know how to act?2

The second vehicle I employ is a set of social theories which help to explain what it is that happens within spaces. Web 2.0 is not only ‘social software’ geared towards communication and information sharing, it is a set of consumer products which first appeared on the World Wide Web. Productive or enjoyable use is not a technological issue: the software is easy to learn and use, familiar to many and generally intuitive. Effective use in organisations is constrained or enhanced by ‘technologies of the self’, the embodied social institutions which govern our social behaviour, our production of ourselves as individuals. We need useful theories to understand what it is that this technology is contributing to the organisation’s ability to act and learn: its memory in other words. We need to explain how this memory is created, stored, classified and found by people when it is needed. We need to understand the processes that transform ideas and solutions into shared social structures and worldviews. We need to understand the institutional impediments and prerequisites which make organisation members participate in creating themselves and knowledge through this set of tools, what social groupings are prone to adopt or reject such tools and how they can be influenced (or how they influence others). The focus of implementation in Web 2.0 moves away from the technological almost entirely to the social realm – so muscular social theory is required. This is the second key argument of this book.

Using Web 2.0 tools is easy and it is my experience that the applications lie on the street, waiting to be picked up: there seems to me to be little potential for breakdown at the level of usability and at the level of functional applicability. But there is breakdown happening in the adoption and sustainment of these tools. I hope that by framing the use of the tools in this way, a method for envisioning, planning, justifying and implementing these eminently useful tools can evolve. I also hope that these notions provide an evaluative and analytical framework for investigating and researching their value.


1.Chui et al. (February 2009) write: ‘Web 2.0, the latest wave in corporate technology adoptions, could have a more far-reaching organizational impact than technologies adopted in the 1990s – such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), and supply chain management.’ This is an extraordinary statement given the impact of enterprise data management systems on company efficiency and business models, and is also extraordinary given the cheapness, ubiquity and immature nature of this software in firms. But McKinsey are not alone: the Gartner Group writes: ‘Many enterprises are adopting new Web 2.0 technologies and methodologies, but others are struggling with basics such as value propositions and justification. Despite some difficulties, 2008 will be the year that Web 2.0 enters Type B (mainstream) enterprises. Understanding the future directions of the Web and how it can be leveraged in the enterprise are critical success factors for IT organizations’ (Phifer et al., 2007), and further: ‘Web 2.0 is one of the most hyped and misunderstood concepts in IT, yet it will have a significant impact on technology architectures, application content, communication, collaboration and business services’ (Smith, 2008b).

2.Lemert and Branaman (1997).