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Harvard prof. envisions Enterprise 2.0 Web services

Wikis, blogs and social networking, now viewed mostly as a consumer trend, have the potential to change the way knowledge workers work as Enterprise Web 2.0 enters the corporate world, a Harvard professor says.

Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee believes that wikis, blogs and social networks will be combining with Web Services and Ajax in the corporate world to form what he calls "Enterprise 2.0."

It's a definition of how software is used, not how it gets developed.
Andrew McAfee
 ProfessorHarvard Business School

Enterprise 2.0 has the potential to be an IT and corporate game changer McAfee told Sonny Singh, senior vice president in the Industries Business Unit at Oracle Corp. in a Webcast last week. McAfee answered questions about Enterprise 2.0 from the Oracle executive and audience members at the event previewing Oracle's plans to integrate Enterprise 2.0 into its middleware, service-oriented architecture (SOA) and business process management (BPM) offerings. Enterprise 2.0 will be a theme at the Oracle OpenWorld conference in San Francisco next month, the executives said.

McAfee said he first realized the potential of Web 2.0 technologies to become an Enterprise 2.0 platform while studying more traditional corporate software applications including ERP, BPM, supply chain management and customer relationship management (CRM). At first, he was skeptical about the value of Web 2.0 for business, but hands-on experience convinced him that it had potential.

"When I educated myself a bit about it I saw that it has huge relevance to companies because it did just about the opposite of the technology I'd been studying," he said. "It did not impose anything on users. Instead it gave them a very, very free environment to work in and lets structures emerge over time."

Defining his terms, he said that Web 2.0 includes applications such as blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and social networking. Enterprise 2.0 is the packaging of those technologies in both the corporate IT and workplace environments.

"Enterprise 2.0 is the use of a freeform social software platform inside an organization that allows them to do things that are important," McAfee said. The exact delivery method of Enterprise 2.0 is less important in his definition than how people make use of it. "It's a definition of how software is used, not how it gets developed, not whether it's Software as a Service, or sitting on a server inside the organization."

McAfee said he was initially skeptical of how much knowledge might be generated via these social networking Web communities. However, as he visited them he changed that opinion.

"For example, Wikipedia is about as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, at least on scientific topics," the Harvard professor said.

As for social networking sites, he thought they were just vehicles for teenagers looking for dates to get together.

"That changed for me when I got a Facebook account," he said. He now finds himself checking throughout the day to see what his social network is doing. As part of his on-going research, he said he polls his network on questions and has been pleasantly surprised at how quickly "good answers" come back in response. That is where he sees social networking fitting into a business as part of a corporate Intranet.

"There are direct enterprise equivalents," he said. "You can ask people the status of their projects, what they're working on, are they traveling, things they've learned. All of these things would be very valuable inside an enterprise."

Wikis and social networking are "concrete capabilities" that would be valuable in the enterprise for knowledge worker collaboration, he said. "Until the wiki came along there was not a good way for a distributed group of people to come together and collaboratively generate a document or build a Web page or comment on a status report. They also give people in the organization a forum to express their judgment on things of interest."

Unlike traditional enterprise software applications where the user is expected to learn and adapt to how the program functions, Enterprise 2.0 applications tend to grow organically, McAfee said.

"There's this capability that I call self organization, which is if you deploy these technologies, your Intranet suddenly starts to look a lot more like the Internet," he said. "It's very dynamic, it's easy to navigate, but it's got a constantly changing, constantly evolving structure that's not overseen by any one central authority."

McAfee said he sees early adopters of Enterprise 2.0 in technology companies because they are naturally fans of new technology, and among financial services companies because they need to quickly exchange data. But because it is so non-traditional and freeform, Enterprise 2.0 may be resisted by more staid IT and corporate cultures.

For more information
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In companies that expect all the employees to be working in structured ways, accessing a Faceook account to poll your network may not be a Phi Beta Kappa career move. McAfee also noted that the Enterprise 2.0 software needs to be very attractive and easy to use, to draw knowledge workers away from email, which is currently the networking and collaboration tool of choice.

In the end, McAfee told his Oracle audience that while he is "personally optimistic" about the future of Enterprise 2.0, it is still too early to tell how big a factor it will be.

"I think it has the potential to be a game changer," he said. "Being honest we have to admit that it's still early in this trend. We don't know how easy it's going to be to deploy these technologies. We don't know how deeply they are going to penetrate organizations. We're not exactly clear on the magnitude of the benefit."

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