Is Web 2.0 enterprise-ready?

Over the years, big companies have dumped a lot of money into computer systems that promise to automate “knowledge management.” Most of that money has been wasted. No matter how technologically elegant their design, knowledge management “platforms” and “repositories” tend to quickly collapse under the weight of their own complexity. Using them turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth – particularly for those employees who have the most valuable knowledge – and the platforms and repositories fall into disuse and are eventually, and quietly, dismantled. People go back to using efficient, direct conversations – through meetings, or phone calls, or emails, or instant messages – to exchange useful knowledge.

The collaboration technologies collectively know as Web 2.0 – blogs, wikis, tags, RSS and the like – are the latest to be promoted as powerful tools for automating corporate knowledge management. But will they share the same fate as their predecessors: heavily hyped, widely installed, then abandoned? Andrew McAfee doesn’t think so. McAfee, a Harvard Business School professor and one of the most thoughtful scholars of corporate information management, makes the business case for Web 2.0 in an article in the new issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration.” (Don’t worry: The article’s better than its title.)

McAfee first explains why past knowledge management “solutions” rarely solved anything. He then explains what makes Web 2.0 technologies different. “The good news,” he writes, is that the new technologies “focus not on capturing knowledge itself, but rather on the practices and output of knowledge workers.” By providing both a platform for collaboration and a means of recording the details of the collaboration, the technologies create a public record of previously private knowledge-sharing conversations, a record that’s permanent and easily searched. Knowledge is captured, in other words, as it’s created, without requiring any additional work. As people search and use that knowledge, moreover, they refine it – through commenting, linking, syndicating and tagging, for instance – which makes it even more valuable.

“This suggests an intriguing possbility,” writes McAfee:

It has historically been the case that as organizations grow it becomes more and more difficult for people within them to find a particular information resource – a person, a fact, a piece of knowledge or expertise. Enterprise 2.0 technologies, however, can be a force in the opposite direction. They can make large organizations in some ways more searchable, analyzable and navigable than smaller ones, and make it easier for people to find precisely what they’re looking for. The new technologies certainly don’t overcome all the dysfunctions of corporate scale, but they might be able to address some of them.

McAfee makes a strong case for why Web 2.0 technologies may succeed where earlier technologies didn’t. The new technologies have other practical advantages as well: they’re cheap, fairly simple to set up, and fairly straightforward to use. Companies can test them without much expense or pain.

Still, though, skepticism is in order. McAfee provides just one case study of a company gaining real benefits from Web 2.0 – that of the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein – and even that one seems provisional. There are, to be sure, other examples of apparently successful uses of Web 2.0 technologies for knowledge management, but all previously hyped knowledge management technologies also came wrapped in anecdotes of enthusiastic earlier adopters. In the excitement of the rollout of such technologies, it’s easy to document initial “successes” – there’s always at least a small group of technologically-inclined employees who will gravitate to a seemingly cool new platform. The real test comes later, when the personal costs and benefits of using the system become apparent to a broad set of employees.

McAfee sounds a note of caution along these lines. He notes the possibility that “busy knowledge workers won’t use the new technologies, despite training and prodding,” and points to the fact that “most people who use the Internet today aren’t bloggers, wikipedians or taggers. They don’t help produce the platform – they just use it.” There’s the rub. Managers, professionals and other employees don’t have much spare time, and the ones who have the most valuable business knowledge have the least spare time of all. (They’re the ones already inundated with emails, instant messages, phone calls, and meeting requests.) Will they turn into avid bloggers and taggers and wiki-writers? It’s not impossible, but it’s a long way from a sure bet.

UPDATE: On his blog, McAfee adds some further thoughts, in response to the above.

13 thoughts on “Is Web 2.0 enterprise-ready?

  1. Seth Finkelstein

    Wiki’s are, not, intrinsically, frivolous things. They are clearly adapted from a technology used in programming to manage multiple contributions to a product. This is useful. I can see a niche where the particular combination of trade-off is productive as an internal corporate documentation-management system, versus other such systems.

    But it’s not magic.

  2. JeffB

    You can’t run a library without librarians. For automated knowledge management to work you would need something like:

    Everything is catalogued automatically. Shared files are in the catalogue repository and searchable unless explicitly marked “private”, emails automatically get added to the searchable database unless the “do not share” flag is flipped. …

    Most companies are so profoundly dishonest with their employees, vendors, partners and customers that a “share by default” would be a nightmare. I can image something like the above working for government however. So for most companies they’ll have good knowledge management when they hire full time employees whose job it is to create collaboration and communication.

  3. Simon

    I think that the expectations for Web 2.0 are too high. It is reminicent of the high times in the 90s where all content was going to be delivered to the desktop (ignore the fact that we had 56K dial-up). In fact, when you think of it, the web of today is what was promised in the 90s (it just took longer). As to the sophistication/integration, we have a LONG way to go. Anyone who worked in the mainframe days knows that we are still re-inventing the technology of the 60s/70s and not doing it as well!

    To me, this is not so much Web 2.0 as Web 0.2 alpha.


  4. Mitch Barnett

    Hmmm. Web 2.0? What the heck is that? Just more information overload from what I can see.

    Having been in the biz as a software developer type for 15 years, I have yet to see any technology and/or solution that make it easier for people to share information in a way that is truly useful – except when it is well designed from a categorization/taxonomy and metadata point of view. In other words, it ain’t got nothing to do with the technology or… Web 2.0.

    Of course, there is the old school way which goes like this, “let me show you the ropes kid cause you won’t find this in any documentation.”

    Keep up the good writing Nicholas. Cheers, Mitch.

  5. Liam @ Web 2.5 blog

    End-users pull many new technologies into business. (See PC, PDA, email, etc.) Unfortunately, web systems are largely server-based (either intranet or online) and that creates a huge barrier to end-user adoption. End-users can’t set up server software, nor get approval to involve a service provider in most cases.

    The problem starts on the desktop. There’s no project-oriented workspace in Windows or Office, let alone a wiki-space with pages & links. Given a personal/shareable wiki app, I believe knowledge workers would eat it up. But it has to be serverless; you can’t fix the desktop by adding a server.

  6. Julen

    But there’s another problem. According to Gartner’s hype cycle, if you don’t get what you promise through Web 2.0 tools, you are going to create new skeptics, aren’t you? Most of people are not bloggers, of course. Many people think that bloggers or wikiers are people who have nothing else to do in their lifes.

    Knowledge is inside the action and technologies must arrive as natural as possible into the day-by-day job. If not, it will be ‘another task’, ‘one more thing to do’. Besides, many times CEOs at the top don’t show a good level of information literacy.

    So, the landscape don’t seem to be very optimistic. But, anyway, I think tools from Web 2.0 are a great oportunity to change. I have my hopes pinned on these tools, but let’s be prudents. There are many tools in cemetery 1.0. Enterprises here are still very far from 2.0 city.

    Regards from Spain, Europe, and congratulations on your blog.

  7. Charles Jolley


    We write extensively on this topic on our blog, the Big Act. In fact, you would be interested in a post we recently wrote specifically on how to get RSS adopted into the Enterprise. I think it comes down to showing managers how they can apply these technologies to get ahead of their customers. Something we call Management by Feeds. Here is the post:

    Management by Feeds (or How to Take RSS Mainstream)


    PS. I am CEO of a company called Sproutit. Our Mailroom service is a web-based email system that uses Web 2.0 technologies like RSS and tagging to help small groups handle their sales and support email.

  8. Tom Hughes

    While there’s always room for lots of skepticism, I am guardedly hopeful that Web 2.0 will make a difference, at least in the “expert” industries that I work in — investment banking and management consulting. Knowledge workers in those fields are more and more aware of the gap between the potential to collaborate and the reality of the familiar tools like email. There are also lots of interstitial companies (e.g., Gerson Lehrman, Bloomberg, Alacra, IntraLinks) that have partial, proprietary solutions for collaboration outside the firewall, and they are all experimenting in the 2.0 space.

  9. Arnie McKinnis

    Knowledge is just data hastily wrapped up – it’s the last minute gift you buy on Christmas Eve. We ought to be looking beyond knowledge into “wisdom” – which is really the final frontier. If we can wrap up all the data into that “truly thoughtful gift” presented to someone because we “know” their likes and dislikes – that would really be useful – it’s having the raw data defined by our knowledge then wrapped within the nuances of context.

  10. dinesh tantri


    May I flip the question and ask “Is the Enterprise Web 2.0 ready?”. I guess this question is more important.Enterprises need to let go of central control and understand the implications of social software.It is more a question of executives crossing the rubicon to experiment with more fluid structures like communities (which social software enables).There are enough examples of successful adoption of wikis and blogs in enterprises already.

  11. Paul Gillin

    I agree that Web 2.0 technologies are contributing to information overload, but you’ve got to have the information before you can begin to organize it. Personal publishing unleashes individual expression in a way that has never been tried before. Knowledge management tools were typically closed and limited to the four walls of the organization. Employees were forced to use them because of a corporate mandate.

    People are publishing now because they can, not because they have to. That’s the big difference. And I notice that you haven’t mentioned search as key Web 2.0 technology. Our ability to sort through and make sense of all this new data has improved dramatically in the last five years. No, we won’t get to nirvana, but we will make progress. I think Web 2.0 is showing a lot of initial success in that respect.

  12. gavan

    Web 2.0 has recieved too much hype but allowing end users to exchange information is the ultimate goal.I am sure that big companies are and will be burnt buying in to this hype cycle ,where it will be interesting is the Internet generation deciding that there is better ways of exchanging information and going out and using tools that are easy to use and free that will be when the real fun starts.

  13. bretheartbobby

    I’m going to go off on a little tangent here and claim that the term ‘enterprise’ is as much of a buzzword as ‘Web 2.0′. I’ve met a lot of people who claim that Java and .Net are more ‘enterprise-ready’ than other programming languages, without a lot to back this up. Mainly because enterprise is very vague and could mean anything.

    But back on topic, my company recently started using a private wiki as well as a public blog. The wiki is for internal management and record keeping, while the blog is used for sharing new industry-related trends and websites.

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