Is Web 2.0, despite all the hype, really just a crock?
It’s a question that, ironically, is the subject of heated debate at the moment. The irony is that Web 2.0 is a lucrative “sweet spot” in an otherwise traumatized global economy and battered business environment.
Web 2.0 is undeniably hot. Just Google “Web 2.0” or check Amazon for the plethora of books on the subject (including one by me, and another forthcoming). Walk into any luxury hotel lobby these days and you’ll likely bump into a self-proclaimed Web 2.0 guru.
Maybe that’s the problem. Critics claim that Web 2.0 is an over-hyped flavor-of-the-month techno trend that has flung open the gates to a stampede of management evangelists and marketing hucksters flogging their Kool-Aid. Web 2.0 recipes, say critics, are big on marketing nostrums but short on measureable results. In short, where’s the beef?
I was left reflecting on that troubling question after reading a blog post by Oliver Marks, a respected Web 2.0 evangelist who tirelessly travels the world spreading the gospel. After the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference in San Francisco, however, Marks was unmistakably dispirited by both the coherence of the Web 2.0 message and its ambivalent reception.
“It’s still hard to deliver an understandable and memorable Enterprise 2.0 elevator pitch proposition between the 40th floor bar and the hotel lobby,” he noted. Marks expressed the same dismay in a video chat after the San Francisco conference with fellow evangelist Andrew McAfee, who coined the term “Enterprise 2.0” in 2006. They both left the vague impression that, despite some signs of progress, the conference had been a letdown due to lack of C-suite buy-in.
My God, I thought, when the apostles themselves are rending their garments perhaps there’s good reason to question the religion’s main articles of faith.
To stay with the Biblical analogy, there is a Saint Thomas in this story. The doubting Thomas is Dennis Howlett, a highly regarded enterprise software expert who committed heresy in a widely-discussed blog post titled, “Enterprise 2.0: what a crock”.
“Regardless of what you’re told by the Enterprise 2.0 mavens, business has far more pressing problems,” growled Howlett. “The world is NOT made up of knowledge driven businesses. It’s made up of a myriad of design, make and buy people who — quite frankly — don’t give a damn about the ‘emergent nature’ of enterprise…Like it or not, large enterprises — the big name brands — have to work in structures and hierarchies that most Enterprise 2.0 mavens ridicule but can’t come up with alternatives that make any sort of corporate sense. Therein lies the Big Lie. Enterprise 2.0 pre-supposes that you can upend hierarchies for the benefit of all.”
Howlett’s curmudgeonly, but well-informed, opinions caused quite a stir among Web 2.0 evangelist – that’s putting it mildly. Howlett even revealed that, invited to attend the Enterprise 2.0 conference in San Francisco, he flatly spurned the offer: “Why would I waste my time listening to a bunch of talking heads trot out the same claptrap I’ve been hearing for the last several years?”
Among those talking heads were the sharpest Web 2.0 evangelists in the business. And some of them, predictably – notably Marks, McAfee, Sameer Patel, and Stowe Boyd – were quick to fire off rebuttals to Howlett’s stinging criticism.
But the damage was done. Howlett clearly had destabilized these apostles. In their counter-arguments, they were watering their wine. At the San Francisco conference, a view emerged that the word “social” (as in social media) was not helping the Enterprise 2.0 cause. Howlett acknowledged this concession with satisfaction in a follow-up blog post, noting: “I’ve argued for years that the notion of anything that has ‘social’ attached to its moniker is about as welcome as breaking wind in a spacesuit”.
What’s happening to the loudly-trumpetted “social media” revolution when its leading evangelists are expurgating its true semantic meaning? Is Web 2.0 a business revolution that dare not speak its name?
It might be tempting to believe that this friendly feud is restricted mainly to geeky Enterprise 2.0 precincts where IT experts, software vendors, management consultants, and MBA academics debate impenetrable subjects like system architectures. Let the IT geeks gnash their teeth. Over in the marketing & PR world, Web 2.0 experts are happily swimming in the sweet spot — rocking, kicking butt, and enthusiastically using the adjective “awesome” to describe just about anything.
Not so fast. Web 2.0 marketers are sinking into their own quagmire. They are, for example, facing criticism about ethical lapses regarding advertising-sponsored blogs and tweets. U.S. regulators are now threatening to impose rules to protect consumers.
Meanwhile, claims by Web 2.0 marketing consultants that social media tools produce bottom-line results have been contradicted by other doubting Thomases. Larry Dignan published a blog post that challenged Web 2.0 consultant Charlene Li’s robust “ROI” claims for big brands employing social media techniques. Dignan’s blog post was titled: “Does social media really correlate with the bottom line? Color me skeptical”. If that’s not enough, after the recent Defrag conference in Denver, which was attended by many Web 2.0 marketers, Louis Gray penned a blog post titled: “Skepticism Over Current State of Social Web”.
So what’s going on? Why all this self-doubting, curmudgeonly sniping, teeth-gnashing, hand-wringing, soul-searching and flagging faith?
There is, of course, nothing wrong with healthy debate – in fact, it should be encouraged. But perhaps there is something deeper at work in these challenges to Web 2.0 evangelism.
It occurred to me that in this debate about Web 2.0, as with most things in this world, where you stand depends largely on where you sit. To put it more grandly, the differences between evangelists and doubters are not only about pragmatic “where’s the beef?” questions, but reflect fundamentally opposing philosophies about human nature.
Before addressing Web 2.0’s philosophical underpinnings, let’s first establish some precise definitions. Most would agree that all Web 2.0 evangelists cannot be placed squarely in the same socio-professional group.
At risk of oversimplification, I would argue that there are three broad spheres of Web 2.0 evangelism: Marketing, Enterprise, and Government.
This group was early to rush into the Web 2.0 space, mainly due to the Web’s powerful impact on advertising industry dynamics. Marketing & PR professional had to get their heads around Web 2.0 – and fast. The stakes were too high for inaction.
In the United States, the Social Media Clubs network emerged from the marketing & PR profession, many of whom have tossed away their old business cards and now call themselves “social media strategists”.
The word “social” is not a problem for Web 2.0 marketers, mainly because it’s a natural outgrowth of previous notions of “mass” – i.e. mass media and mass marketing. Social isn’t a threat, it’s cool.
The big challenge for Marketing 2.0 professionals, apart from completely reinventing their business to accommodate the power shift from suppliers to consumers, has been redesigning tactics to meet the demands of Web 2.0 metrics. Moving away from “broadcast” advertising models, they have mastered “viral” Web dynamics and integrated social capital factors like “influence” (which, in fact, is old wine in new bottles with origins stretching back more than a half century to the empirical work of Paul Lazarsfeld and others on personal influence and opinion-shaping).
The Marketing 2.0 sphere is crowded with consultants, authors, and gurus selling concepts and approaches with catchy slogans and formulas. This feverish activity is demand-driven because many companies are eager to learn about Web 2.0 tactics if they promise to boost sales. Among respected thought leaders in this school are Brian Solis, Shel Israel, Chris Brogan, and Steve Rubel. A maverick, and high-profile, voice in this school is Robert Scoble.
Key words in Marketing 2.0 are branding, sales, reputation management, customer relations, and so on. This is the sexy area of Web 2.0, which boasts an active and well-attended conference circuit.
In sum, we can say that Marketing 2.0 is largely focused on the tactics of externally orientated approaches (branding, sales, customer relations) whose goals are mainly short-term.
This school can claim loftier origins going back not only to Cluetrain Manifesto a decade ago but also to management theories over the past forty years advocating flat structures and open collaboration.
Unlike sales-oriented Marketing 2.0 evangelists, the Enterprise 2.0 movement has encountered institutionalized resistance inside corporations. The reason for this is not difficult to discover: Enterprise 2.0 evangelists are confronted with the daunting task of transforming rigid organizational structures and hierarchies. They are essentially in the business of “change management”. That’s a lot harder than concocting videos for viral branding campaigns on YouTube.
In Enterprise 2.0, the word “social” is, as noted, more an obstacle than an advantage. Inside companies, departments like Legal, HR, and IT operate within strict rules and compliance procedures that are fundamentally hostile to “social” behavior, which has connotations of chaos (not to mention “time wasting”).
Geeks are passionate about Enterprise 2.0, but for the uninitiated it’s a highly technical, software-driven field with comparatively less sex appeal. Enterprise 2.0 experts, to their credit, tend to be highly specialized and technically focused (unlike marketing & PR which is a more inexact science). Respected Enterprise 2.0 thought leaders include Dion Hinchcliffe, Andrew McAfee, Oliver Marks, and others mentioned above.
In sum, we can say that Enterprise 2.0 is largely focused on strategies for internally oriented approaches towards managing employees inside organizations and communicating with business partners. The goals of these strategies are essentially medium-term — on the five-year horizon.
This Web 2.0 school, often overlooked, is focused not on engaging with customers or managing knowledge inside companies, but on the connection between governments and their citizens. In short, replace the words “consumers” and “customers” with “citizens”.
A variety of different buzzwords are used in this school: e-democracy, e-government, Government 2.0, and so on. Certain specialists in this school are focused on how governments can deploy Web 2.0 tools to deliver services to citizens, while others are more focused on bottom-up e-democracy where citizens self-organize.
A third sub-sphere in this school has received the most media attention: electoral politics. Politicians have borrowed heavily from Marketing 2.0 as they search — after the success of Barack Obama — for effective Web 2.0 tools and tactics to appeal to voters. In fact, this electoral component of e-democracy probably belongs in the Marketing 2.0 school due to its preoccupation with tactics and short-term results.
Web 2.0 evangelists inside government machinery face many of the same organizational challenges as Enterprise 2.0 specialists – namely, obstacles erected by bureaucratic silos and entrenched corporate cultures. There is also a strong IT focus on what software solutions can be deployed to achieve goals.
A conference circuit has emerged in the Government 2.0 sphere – in the United States, the Gov 2.0 summit and Personal Democracy Forum, and in Europe events like e-Democracy and the inaugural PDF Europe conference in Barcelona in late November 2009. Thought leadership has come from Tim O’Reilly and his conferences in the United States, while in Europe thinkers like Charles Leadbeater have become articulate spokesmen for bottom-up forms of social organization. In the corporate world, Google’s Vint Cerf is engaged in Gov 2.0 issues. And Cisco’s brain trust published a report called the Connected Republic, inspired in part by thinkers like Cluetrain co-author David Weinberger.
In sum, we can say that Government 2.0 is largely focused on the use of Web-based platforms to transform the relationship between state and citizens, and the achievement of those goals is essentially long term.
These three schools are interconnected, of course, but largely as circles peripherally overlapping in a middle zone. Some Web 2.0 specialists move in all three groups (I am one of them), but most stay largely focused on the issues related to their own particular sphere – with the exception, of course, of software vendors who have an interest in promoting their products in all three areas. What links all three spheres, of course, is the nature of their challenge: using different techniques and strategies to transform underlying values that shape behavior.
Now let’s turn to the issue I set out to address: philosophy.
My thinking about Web 2.0 initially took this admittedly high-minded perspective when I read a tweet by evangelist Susan Scrupski, who is a driving force behind the Enterprise 2.0 Adoption Council. Her tweet quoted management guru Peter Drucker, who once stated that “the purpose of an organization is to enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things”.
Drucker’s essentially optimistic view, I thought, can only be inspiring. It was shortly after reading this Drucker quote that I came across Dennis Howlett’s grumbles about Enterprise 2.0 being a “crock”. Howlett asserted that organizations can’t be “nurtured” into collaborative modes of behavior because human “nature” will always get in the way.
“Time and again, we see the instinctive, nature-driven flight to survival as departments defend turf,” he said.
Howlett’s remark reminded me of management thinker Tom Davenport’s equally skeptical view of Web 2.0: “Enterprise 2.0 software and the Internet won’t make organizational hierarchy and politics go away. They won’t make the ideas of the front-line worker in corporations as influential as those of the CEO. Most of the barriers that prevent knowledge from flowing freely in organizations – power differentials, lack of trust, missing incentives, unsupportive cultures, and the general busyness of employees today – won’t be addressed or substantially changed by technology alone. For a set of technologies to bring about such changes, they would have to be truly magical, and Enterprise 2.0 tools fall short of magic.”
That was a light-bulb moment for me – and reading Susan Scrupski’s tweet brought it into focus. I suddenly realized that — while we’re waiting for the “ROI” case to be made – the conflicting views about Web 2.0 find their origin in two fundamentally opposing philosophies about human nature.
Let’s examine that philosophical dichotomy:
Web 2.0 evangelists belong to the philosophical school of liberalism in the classic sense of that term. They are essentially optimistic and believe, above all, that human nature is good and individuals are rational – and thus can recognize the “truth”.
This tradition finds its modern origins, needless to say, in the works of Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke and Rousseau and later John Stuart Mill. Their classic liberalism constituted a challenge to the prevailing authoritarian systems that later found philosophical justification in conservatism.
“No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible,” stated Mill, “until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.” That’s pure Enterprise 2.0 gospel, though these days less openly declared.
Web 2.0 naysayers, on the other hand, are philosophical conservatives who espouse an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. They believe that human nature is essentially bad and human beings are not rational – and thus can never recognize the “truth”.
This philosophical school traces its modern origins to Machiavelli. Its most obvious spokesman, however, is Thomas Hobbes, famous for his “state of nature” theory and observation that life is “nasty, brutish and short”.
Dennis Howlett’s anti-Enterprise 2.0 arguments about “nature” over “nurture” are philosophical echoes of Hobbes. Hobbes undoubtedly would agree with both Howlett and Tom Davenport that complex organizations are not idealized paradises where the lion lies down with the lamb, but rather a dense jungle of relentless belligerence where human motives are driven by power, turf, and domination.
We can conclude, therefore, that Web 2.0 evangelists are philosophical optimists who believe in the human capacity to act rationally and collaborate to achieve common goals. Web 2.0 doubters, by contrast, are philosophical pessimists who believe that man’s selfish nature and unblinking pursuit of his own interests at the expense of others will always thwart any effort inside organizations to foster a culture of sharing and collaboration.
There is also a cultural dimension to this dichotomy.
Generally speaking, Web 2.0 evangelism has made greater progress in Anglo-American countries whose history is steeped in traditions of liberalism and egalitarianism – especially the United States. Also, the Anglo-American intellectual tradition emphasizes pragmatism based on concrete results – a suitable cultural environment for experimentation and hard metrics.
In other cultures, including continental Europe, Web 2.0 has confronted major obstacles due to deeply entrenched cultures shaped by centuries of authoritarian institutions – Catholic Church, military, and centralized state. This is particularly the case in Latin countries like France, where a rigidly bureaucratic culture and abstracted notion of authority are fundamentally hostile to Web 2.0’s horizontal social architecture and collaborative values. Also, France’s intellectual tradition emphasizes abstract logic over pragmatic considerations – not a propitious environment for Web 2.0.
In short, Anglo-American organizational cultures are relatively open to horizontal structures and pragmatic approaches, and business managers feel comfortable with horizontal networking and information inputs. European organizational cultures in countries like France, by contrast, are vertically structured, rigidly hierarchical, turned inward, and regulated by absolute notions of authority that are inherently hostile to Web 2.0 values. See here for an academic analysis of this contrast between American and French business managers.
Oliver Marks, who is based in the United States, pointed to this issue with commendable diplomacy after recently attending an Enterprise 2.0 summit in Europe. “Although English is the lingua franca of international business online,” he noted, “providing compelling reasons to persuade participation in European online collaboration can be culturally more challenging than in the English speaking US and UK.”
So where does this leave us? I confess that I don’t have any answers here – there is, in fact, no resolution to these opposing views of human nature. The entire march of civilization has been shaped by the tension between these two opposing philosophies.
One possible answer lies with future generations, starting with the “millennials” charging into the workforce now. True, the younger generation can’t escape the basic facts of human nature, but they have the power to opt for one, and not the other, view of human nature.
As management guru Gary Hamel predicted in the Wall Street Journal: “The experience of growing up online will profoundly shape the workplace expectations of “Generation F” – the Facebook generation. At a minimum, they’ll expect the social environment of work to reflect the social context of the Web…If your company hopes to attract the most creative and energetic members of Gen F, it will need to understand these Internet-derived expectations, and then reinvent its management practices accordingly”.
But what if the pessimists are right? Maybe it’s impossible, despite the best intentions, to escape the hard reality that organizational behavior is fundamentally a “state of nature” contest about interests and power.
Even Tom Davenport, a Web 2.0 doubter, allowed for the following possibility on the horizon: “It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens when the young bucks and buckettes of today’s wired world hit the adult work force. Will they freely submit to such structured information environments as those provided by SAP and Oracle, content and knowledge management systems, and communication by email? Or will they overthrow the computational and communicational status quo with MySpace, MyBlog, and MyWiki?”
The debate about the pragmatics of Web 2.0 will continue – and so it should. As we move forward, looking for appropriate compromises and practical solutions to resolve common problems, we can at least know that differences of opinion about means and ends find their origins in deeply rooted philosophical notions about our most basic needs and motivations.
UPDATE: A day after I published this blog post, Michael Krigsman published an excellent and insightful post on his ZDNeT blog assessing many of the same themes. Titled “Resistance to Change: The Real Enterprise 2.0 Barrier”, Krigsman’s post implicitly concedes that human nature and the powerful instinct to preserve the status quo will remain an obstacle to Web 2.0 adoption in organizations. His essentially optimistic conclusion, however, is based on the conviction that Enterprise 2.0 success stories — i.e. pragmatic and measurable results — can prevail over deeply-entrenched hostility to change. “In general, fighting human nature is an uphill battle that eventually results in failure,” he counsels. “Instead, work gently with stakeholders to help them experience first-hand the benefits of Enterprise 2.0. Success is the most powerful form of organizational transformation and evolution.”