What’s working today in Enterprise 2.0? I knew this article would be a challenge, but I was unprepared for the challenge inherent in just getting the terms right. To begin with, what is Enterprise 2.0?

MIT’s Andrew McAfee coined the term in 2006, describing it as “the use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers.”

That definition describes a process -- “use of” -- but doesn’t help much with what a successful end result might be. Stopping there would open the effort to measuring Enterprise 2.0 by the extent to which its component parts are being used; sufficient to spawn blogs, conferences, sales literature and other artifacts, but not much good in evaluating how or if Enterprise 2.0 makes business better.

Still confident, I retreated to definition: if Enterprise 2.0 is aimed at the “enterprise,” what exactly is an enterprise? Again, I found a squishy definition: an enterprise is any organization, formal or otherwise, that produces and delivers goods and/or services to consumers.

Fighting mild desperation, I soldiered on and found a description of Enterprise 2.0 -- among 325,000 Google hits -- as the process of bringing the social and collaborative tools of Web 2.0 into the office -- I won’t even try to define Web 2.0.

Later in that description was the statement that Enterprise 2.0 is the “unleashing of chaos in the office” aiming to “boost overall productivity.” By this time, I had a headache.

Back to Basics?

At this point, it was obvious that without a clear picture of how business can be improved by the integration and use of social software, any answers I could provide might be interesting but not very useful.

So I took a deep breath and began an attempt to understand what in an organized enterprise could be positively impacted by the adoption of social software tools and techniques among its staff, management and customers.

I decided to begin with the functional terms most commonly associated with Enterprise 2.0, assuming that if one brought these things into the enterprise, some good might come from the effort, and the reverse: if one did these things and no improvement could be measured then the effort might be fun but not very valuable. Here are a few such considerations that appear to be frequently misunderstood:

1. Will Wikis and Blogs Really Liberate Your Communication?

These foundation collaborative software tools allow virtually anyone with access to enter and share documents, schedules, results, directories, thoughts, responses and other artifacts of business processes.

While often viewed as relatively new, their predecessors have been around for several decades, usually associated with a major software vendor -- IBM, Lotus, Microsoft, EMC, Google, etc. So while the Wiki -- and to a lesser extent, the Blog -- has been shown to be a potentially valuable tool in a variety of settings (see “the Max Federal Community” for one example), it may actually not qualify as a resource created or made possible by Enterprise 2.0.

Instead, although not new, ideas like Wikis and Blogs may merely be receiving increased attention in business from the growing interest in Enterprise 2.0. And these tools come with their share of problems, often associated with the way people use and abuse them.

One commentator went so far as to say that Wikis and Blogs can succeed in business only when a basic cultural shift toward collaborative and community information has already taken place in the enterprise.

Wikis particularly also suffer from the as yet unresolved conflict between two opposed characteristics: 1) they are most useful when widely available, but 2) they are most vulnerable to misuse, waste and vandalism when widely available.

2. Is “Uncontrolled Communication” Really Communication?

Sometimes called emergence or information democracy, the idea here is that communication should be free to flow in all directions all the time including whatever any participant wishes to communicate. We heard this concept first with Web 2.0; one of its most controversial characteristics.

The challenge of “unleashing” communication is that, whatever we may say, we don’t really want chaos beyond good practice and prudence. So perhaps the real key to information democracy is self-control among the users, and that is a cultural rather than technological factor.

3. Is Your Business Really Ready for a New Enterprise Model?

When we talk about collaboration, communication and the other characteristics of Enterprise 2.0, we often make an implicit assumption that its adoption will, by itself, bring those things into our organization. This comes partly from a software industry anxious to sell us “Enterprise 2.0” software products, but also partly from our penchant for viewing things as simpler than they are.

In fact, there have always been organizations that collaborated and communicated transparently and were the better for it. So perhaps we should first study successful organizations to understand how they achieved their positive business results, catchy moniker or no.

4. Without Real Goals, You’ll Never Know if You’re Making Progress

The tendency to make the vehicle into the goal has bedeviled businesses of all sizes for generations. Doing so not only elevates the vehicle -- planning, knowledge management, collaboration or what have you -- to an importance it does not deserve, it can also obscure real strategic goals that should be guiding us and measuring the success of our actions.

So if we find ourselves asking “how is our collaborative environment working?” instead of “how is our business doing against its competition?” we might end up feeling pretty smug with our new 2.0 environment while our business suffers from lack of attention.

Perhaps at the end of this brief journey we have not so much answered the original question but instead posed another: I like this version: “What about our business can be improved, and what are the best ways, technological and/or otherwise, to make those improvements?”

While that may sound hopelessly plebian, it should be the foundation for everything we do. Enterprise 2.0 -- once we decide what it is -- can perhaps be useful under the right conditions, but it won’t, by any means, be the solution.

Title image courtesy of kasiastock (Shutterstock).

Editor's Note: To read more by Barry Schaeffer: