by C.G. Lynch

Q&A: Andrew McAfee, who coined “Enterprise 2.0,” on What’s Next

Jun 24, 20096 mins
Collaboration SoftwareConsumer ElectronicsInternet

Web 2.0 apps such as blogs, wikis and social networks have come a long way inside businesses for the purposes of collaboration since Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee coined the term "Enterprise 2.0" a few years ago. In fact, McAfee says, IT still sometimes underestimates their collaboration power and overthinks the security fears.

A few years ago, companies were grappling with how to harness Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networks inside the enterprise. Over time, on a departmental level, business leaders would buy these technologies with or without IT’s blessing to help meet their internal collaboration needs.

As people learned it was more efficient, for example, to put shared information into a wiki rather than e-mailing a Word document around to 50 people, the term Enterprise 2.0 was born. Coined by Andrew McAfee, an associate professor of technology and operations management at Harvard Business School, Enterprise 2.0 has yielded a whole industry of start-up and incumbent vendors that sell social software.

As that market meets this week for the annual Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston,’s C.G. Lynch caught up with McAfee, who recently authored a book on the topic. McAfee gives his take on how enterprises have done at adopting Web 2.0 technologies in the past year, and how the vendor landscape for selling social software to businesses has evolved.

CIO: A few years ago, when I first saw you speak at this conference, it seemed like bringing Web 2.0 into the enterprise remained a very nascent topic. Do you think it has gained more acceptance?

McAfee: When I talk to big companies now, it’s very rare for me to find one that doesn’t have some level of projects going that I would call Enterprise 2.0, and that’s a broad definition. So that can include everything from setting up a wiki, to having an internal Facebook, or we have a large-scale SharePoint deployment going. It’s very rare that I come across a company that says, “huh? What are you talking about?” And you also don’t hear people saying, “Oh, we know about it, and we’re doing everything we can to squelch it.”

Now, that’s setting the bar kind of low. Above that, I see all kinds of levels of engagement with these kinds of efforts. I definitely get the strong impression that the use of these Enterprise 2.0 tools within companies for business purposes is accelerating instead of decelerating. One of the really heartening things is that this isn’t just a phenomenon for high tech companies, or companies that employ tons of Gen Y workers. It’s happening at different kinds of companies, industries and sectors of the economy.

CIO: The vendor landscape seems to have evolved. One thing I’m hearing a lot is that Microsoft’s SharePoint has really gained a lot of market share in the Enterprise 2.0 world. How has this affected the smaller start-up vendors?

McAfee: When a new space opens up — it doesn’t matter if it’s the car industry in the teens and twenties, or the enterprise software industry in the early and mid 1990s, and the 2.0 space right now — what you expect to see is a huge number of start-ups, few of which survive, and big players in neighboring markets looking over at the new space and saying, “Oh man, we clearly want to play there.”

Do the incumbents succeed in colonizing that new space? Do they do it organically? Do they do it by buying up a lot of the small people and folding their stuff in? Or do we see something, like we’ve seen over and over again with the tech industry, where a Google comes along and not only advances the field of Internet search, for instance, but it really comes to dominate it and become a big, huge player. Now, my crystal ball is not good enough to know which of those things is going to happen in Enterprise 2.0. I find it hard to believe that all of these start-ups are going to fade away or get swallowed up by a juggernaut. But I also find it hard to believe that a lot of companies are going to walk away from their established enterprise software vendors and give themselves over entirely to a bunch of small, young companies.

CIO: The past year, it felt like Twitter was the hottest technology on the consumer Web. And meanwhile, Facebook redesigned its site to have homepages that streamed information to us in real-time. Do you see that kind of app design moving into enterprises as the next big Enterprise 2.0 trend? Seems like it would be a nice departure from folders and cumbersome approval processes.

McAfee: There is this move from categorizing and foldering stuff, which is what I used to do with my e-mail, toward more free-flowing, streaming apps, and lightweight tagging systems. That transition towards these apps is a real one. To some extent, companies are having to let go of this idea of “official” sources of information, or a few “approved” people who get to put information out there. Or just having tight control of information that flows through the enterprise. Twitter is this weird thing where we’ve got people all over the world, saying whatever they want to, and it’s all visible to everybody. Now, I find that really interesting and really important, but it’s different from what’s been going on in the enterprise up until now.

To some extent, just like consumers are voting with their feet, employees, customers and all the people involved in your value chain are going to vote with their feet as well. They are going to want to use technologies that make sense to them. Now, if the IT department isn’t providing them, they’re going to use publicly available stuff on the Web. If the IT department shuts that stuff down, they’ll complain and they’ll be less effective than they would be otherwise, and they’ll leave the company.

CIO: I hear from CIOs all the time that they worry about implementing Web 2.0 tools in the enterprise because of security and compliance. Because it’s so easy to publish information with these tools, they think it’s a risk. Does the Enterprise 2.0 industry need to do something to improve security?

McAfee: It’s dealing with it very well, and very little, if anything, needs to be done with it. I ask for horror stories all the time when I talk to groups, especially compliance or security-related horror stories. My collection is empty.

I just don’t have tales from the front about the screw-ups, either deliberate or inadvertent, that were happening because of these more transparent tools. The quick and dirty explanation for why that is: People know how to do their jobs. By this point, none of these tools are a week old, so the rules for using them aren’t unclear.

We know the stuff that will get us fired if we talk about it. If you work in an investment bank, for example, you have it drummed into you, before any Enterprise 2.0 tools even showed up, what you can and can’t talk about, and to whom. So the idea that we’re all going to go a little crazy because Twitter, a blog or a wiki shows up doesn’t make any sense to me.

C.G. Lynch writes about consumer and social technologies, and tracks their migration into the workplace. You can follow him on Twitter: @cglynch.