Chapter 8: Conclusion – Web 2.0 Knowledge Technologies and the Enterprise



Web 2.0 technology is social software. It has emerged into a digital-social milieu because it suits the modes of interaction favoured by the many that choose to conduct relationships on the Internet. These relationships vary greatly in type, content, intimacy and seriousness, but they are fundamentally social. Having evolved in ‘Userland’, the technology is easy, lightweight and free. The natural robustness that this technology has had to accumulate to withstand the nonsense, trivia, deviance and malice of the open Internet stands in laconic hipster contrast to the stolid belt-and-braces methods of much corporate information management. We have seen that the promise of this technology is quite remarkable, but not as remarkable as the resistance to it one encounters in the corporate world. Indeed, a clue to adoption might lie in the fact that the watchdog did not bark in the night.

Because the software is irreducibly social, social theory is required to appreciate it: that is the main thrust of this book. Orthodoxy has developed within the phalanxes of proselytisers for Enterprise 2.0, Library 2.0, Health 2.0 and Government 2.0 that itemises network theory, the strength of weak ties, networked collective intelligence and so on as the foundational arguments. Of course they are appropriate, but they are wish lists, not critical success factors. The momentum of this wave lies with social change and institutional trajectories: the purpose of this book is to understand that social world – and then to change it if that is the right thing to do.

The importance of space became clear to me when I had to explain the use of internal wikis and blogs to members of a large organisation in which I was vainly attempting to promote their use (of course this was to managerial baby-boomers – the X, Y and Net generation had already got it, but weren’t managers or hadn’t undergone ‘management reeducation’). Specific functional capabilities such as web page edit, change notification or discussion threads were easily understood, but rarely was there an unfulfilled need that e-mail, document management systems, electronic forums and so on couldn’t handle. Then I began to formulate the potential in terms of space – encyclopaedia spaces, collaboration spaces, group spaces and learning spaces – and then the lights went on. The universal access, persistence and ‘findability’of information became compelling when formulated in terms of an activity type that persists over generations and beyond individual groups of knowledge workers. This is because the institutions and purposes of these spaces as supportive of organisational business activities are clear: a learning space is where we learn … an encyclopaedia space is where we place and seek authoritative knowledge … a group space is where our group pools and shares information. A flow is a movement of this information towards the purpose of the space. The metaphor of the game can be used to great effect here. And the equipment for this game doesn’t stand in the way of your work: it makes you independent of the IT department, it has a full audit trail and it makes it unbelievably easy to share information.

Once the very notion of spaces and flows has been internalised by decision-makers, we can consider what kinds of knowledge and information are going to be created and stored in a space. If we are creating an advisory space, will it contain prescriptive knowledge? If so, how will we make sure that it is true (because prescriptive knowledge must be true)? Or is our business process tolerant enough to reverse the occasional mistake? Will it be expert, distinctive knowledge? If so, how will we capture it from those cranky technophobes and upgrade it as the world changes? Is it proprietary, general knowledge? If so, how can we get the group (if there is one …) to build it?

Then we come to consider the social interactions which will instantiate the flows of knowledge transformation, the dialectics of construction for a specific kind of knowledge. What is the best form of infrastructure to support the processes? If it is mostly externalisation of prescriptive knowledge, i.e. publication, then a blog or protected wiki is appropriate to create flows that push. If it is to be a learning space, then the socialisation of newcomers is important: flows that support internalisation of authoritative knowledge (mostly prescriptive or proprietary) but with opportunities for externalisation (to allow feedback and correction – learning opportunities) and habituation. But if it is a collaborative or innovation space, then the key dialectics of internalisation, externalisation and objectivation become important: creating new concepts requires flows that have a higher pulse, require asynchronous protocols to overcome space and time – Interactive Chat, RSS, Twitter or wiki pages come to mind.

Creating and sharing the knowledge is still not enough: awareness of the location, reliability and quality of knowledge types is essential. Transactive memory, the directories of organisational knowledge that contain metadata about knowledge, that tell us where to guide it, how to find it and how to retrieve it, is also crucial. All organisational memory must be embedded in a sustainable and ongoing transactive mapping process so that we can find what we need to know, when we need to know it.

Having decided the knowledge type, the space, the flows and the tools, we need to understand the institutions which determine action within the organisation: what are the mental models, the theories in use, the perceptions that guide whether and how people take the tools to hand? What norms dominate to legitimate and invite participation? Why would anyone move to a wiki from e-mail if the only advantage is to the organisation and not to the self? If the knowledge to be added is expert and distinctive, why would anyone ‘give it away’: are the usual suspects of self-realisation, reputation and renown sufficient motivators? If the knowledge is proprietary and general, why will anyone bother to put it on a wiki – it is common knowledge, except to those who don’t know it … and if it is emergent knowledge, who will take the time and the risk to volunteer novelties in the face of potential public ridicule? In considering the knowledge type, one needs to note that the very categories of prescriptive or proprietary knowledge are themselves institutions. If the self-concept of the organisation is not knowledge-oriented, how will such activity gain traction? And we can identify postulates to understand the logic of social action in the organisation, postulates that warn of potential non-adoption like ‘we are a manufacturing organisation – we make stuff, we don’t talk about it’or ’we laugh at people who get it wrong – we fire those who make mistakes’.

But organisations are not homogenous and we know that they have different constituencies. So we drill down to the level of the group: groups are guided by institutions specific to the in-group prototype. A company might have groups of scientists, groups of boilermakers, groups of managers, groups who work for head office. Some groups will be coextensive with the organisation’s formal boundaries, some groups will cross boundaries. Some groups will be remote from each other; others will form for a few weeks and then dissolve. The in-group prototype will be a good, but not guaranteed, indicator of the willingness of people to use public social software at work.

Why are theories of control and power important? For the simple reason that the effective adoption of these technologies is in the interests of the firm and to encourage adoption behaviour requires the exercise of power. This power comes in many forms, the most sustainable and effective of which is to institutionalise workers to the point where conformance is self-imposed. Fully internalised norms which equate personal recognition, collaboration and public innovation with self-actualisation and goodness are the most powerful methods for implementing tools and methods in the service of the organisation. These norms are by no means self-evident: consider cultural norms which militate against high performance – the tall poppy syndrome, modesty and restraint, belonging to a gang of no-hopers. The process of building and propagating institutions which are in the service of the firm has been a work in progress since industrialisation, so it is unlikely to be a quick fix, but it has a substantial momentum and very high payback.

So having understood the social reality around the creation of certain types of working knowledge, we come to the final hurdle: how to change it? Business transformation is notoriously difficult: most attempts to change do not work, and it is beyond the scope of this book to provide a guide – other than to offer some advice relevant to the context of implementing Web 2.0. The objects that guide decisions, the ontology of social action, cannot be sorted into a simple list of critical success factors. In some contexts they might suffice, in others more might be needed, in yet another none of them might be present in a successful project – human beings are odd like that. So creating the environment to maximise the chances for successful adoption and use of Web 2.0 tools in a Web 2.0 way will be a process of soft ontological design, not join-the-dots, architected ’change management’.

In some sense it would be helpful to adopt new language to describe what happens, or should happen, when we conceive of, design and implement Web 2.0 systems. We are constrained by language here, and Web 2.0 systems are different to many conventional applications when they are used as truly social systems. As part of ’letting go’, perhaps we should move from software application to purpose, from information system to space, from business process to flow, from business rules to norms, from policy to behaviour and from compliance to consent.

And why should organisations bother? Because already the evidence is gathering that if you don’t adopt these tools in the spirit of Web 2.0 – and the general statistics about technology say you probably won’t – your organisation’s performance will not be as high as it needs to be. The firms that adopt successfully, the knowledge-intensive firms for example, the adaptive enterprises, the firms with the right vision and leadership, will be lifted to higher levels of performance than firms that adopt semi-successfully. So you will need to change your carpentry and change your tools.

And academics – why should they bother to apply institutional theory, critical theory or constructivism – not to mention the thinking of Castells, Wittgenstein and Heidegger – to Web 2.0 technologies? Because it seems to me that the sheer width of these technologies and the range of the situations in which they can be applied make their management a social affair. Until technology researchers become social theorists to some degree, philosophers of knowledge, and learn to understand what is under the bonnet of knowledge creation, the great leaps forward will remain obscure to them.