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I'm fresh from Enterprise 2.0 Boston, where the big takeaway was that social decision-making and collaboration tools for businesses are moving beyond the hype stage (OK, the hype hasn't abated one bit) and into the implementation phase. Products such as Cisco Quad, IBM Lotus Live, and SAP StreamWork were on display.
Personally, I'm extremely enthusiastic about this stuff, though I can't help but think this is because we're on the cusp of a major market battle, which could be more intense than the Office Suite wars of two decades ago.
I hosted a session at Enterprise 2.0, during which I served as a self-appointed voice of skepticism. I asked my panelists -- BT Design CIO JP Rangaswami, Cisco vice president Murali Sitaram, and Forrester analyst Ted Schadler -- why no one seems to be able to definitively measure the business benefits of E2.0 tools.
Rangaswami responded with a memorable quote. "I've never seen a document describing the benefit of restrooms," he said. "There are some things you're going to install because they're important to have in an enterprise."
On that note, here's my list on the top five big questions which need to be asked about E2.0 products, at least in their current state of maturity and deployment. What's your take? Join the discussion by leaving a comment at the end of this story.
The Quantifiable Benefits Remains Unclear. Despite that fact that many workers have already spent the past year dipping their toes into wikis on the corporate intranet and unified communications tools, beyond amorphous proclamations about the benefits of collaboration, there are no hard numbers to back this stuff up.
More vexingly, as Rangaswami's witty quote makes clear, E2.0 proponents are now beginning to push back against what are really rather timid and reasonable requests to quantify the ROI. Hey, if you're going to spend $10 per seat per month -- that's $120,000 per year, and it's probably just for starters -- isn't it reasonable to ask to see something in black and white?
During my E2.0 panel, Forrester's Schadler pointed out that putting documents and proposals together is faster in a collaborative environment -- a big benefit for marketing and sales teams. I get that, though I'd point out that the current impediment to doc creation isn't so much tools as it is information discovery -- something many wikis make even more difficult, if that's possible.
Here's a devil's advocate question: What happens, five years down the road, if these tools haven't delivered their promised benefits, yet we've ripped out all our previous stuff (eg., legacy e-mail), so that we're locked into a Facebook-style interface when the rest of the world has moved on to the next revolution, in the form of, say, Hypercard 2020?
Video Will Be A Tough Sell. Despite Cisco's determination to make video a central component of the brave new social enterprise, it's unclear whether organizations will bite right now, or whether it will be a slow, years-long road before serious uptake. (I suspect the latter.)
Here, the issue isn't simply cost. Currently, that's a factor, though more so when you're talking standalone telepresence than for desktop video. However, even if prices come down, it's not clear that workers want to see or be seen for every remote meeting.
I've repeatedly heard the example of an engineer pointing the camera at something he's working on, so as to show it to, say, a colleague in Bangalore (perhaps the Gulf of Mexico would be a more relevant example), so the two can better "get" what they're talking about. Point taken, but this example doesn't apply to a bunch of middle managers doing their weekly status meeting.
My personal sense is that as more bandwidth becomes available -- which is really Cisco's skin in this game, when you think about it -- the penetration of conferencing (as opposed to broadcast) video will slowly but surely advance. However, I believe we're talking a decade before widespread usage, as opposed to the pipe dream of a few years, which people some envision.
During my E2.0 panel, Cisco's Sitaram said: "We absolutely see it taking off. It's already happened, and by the way over time the price point will continue to fall." Forrester's Schadler called video a real "sleeper app."
E2.0 Tools Will Change The Way We Work In Unforeseen Ways. Change is good, but at the same time, there's a good and bad to all change. To my panelists, I posited the point that E2.0 tools would destroy the existing back-channels by which workers find out what's really going on.
Possibly this is an overblown fear. If information equals power, E2.0 tools will empower more people by facilitating the connections you would currently make if only you could -- to put a non-visual twist on E2.0 guru's Andrew McAfee's concentric rings of connections for knowledge workers.
At the same time, the upper hierarchies will likely preserve some of their juice by holding the most valuable info back from the brave, new transparent world.
Mostly, the shift into E2.0 overdrive will revolve around negotiating the loss of control of current business processes, which are enforced by today's rather one-dimensional software environments (eg., e-mail.)
Here are my panelists on this:
Rangaswami: "When you empower the edge, you have no idea of what to expect."
Sitaram: "Yes, each individual is going to try to use these tools in different ways. They need to be personalized. We are not going to try to enforce a way of work."
Schadler: "Employees know what to do. IT, in terms of enabling, has to develop a new skill."
E2.0 Could Cause CIOs To Lose Their Biz Cred. Maybe I'm being a worry wart here, but bear with me. Over the past 20 years, chief information officers have successfully made the argument that what they preside over isn't just a cost center -- it offers an important value-add to the business. So the obvious danger here is, if E2.0 tools don't pan out in terms of delivering real business value, CIOs will once again be seen as evangelizing technology for technology's sake. And their boardroom advances will vanish faster than whatever it was you tweeted two minutes ago.
My panelists' advice:
Schadler: "When you're implementing, as an IT professional, you have to do the math between what the business value is and what the IT side of it is, and there's a little give and get that you have to do there. And the way to say that is, build 80% and then stop and listen again."
Sitaram: "Much as we want this to be viral and social, there's got to be an element of the management of the company pushing some of these dimensions."
A Proliferation Of Best-Of-Breed Products Will Result In E2.0 Sprawl. OK, here I'm just being cranky. All new software markets eventually evolve from a thousand point products to a few winners. So maybe what worries me is that I'm not so sure that the Facebook paradigm -- which everyone has more of less signed onto -- is the best look-and-feel for an enterprise collaboration environment. I keep coming back to search, search, search. Helping me find documents and information is more of a win than being able to see what meeting Joe and Sally are in. Here's an heretical thought: maybe at the end of the day, the winner won't be an enterprise Facebook clone?
Here are my panelists on what they see evolving:
Schadler: "The data is very clear on this. People are trying to replicate the best of the web, and harness that internally. Because otherwise people will just use the Web, and that's scary if you're a CIO. In a regulated industry, that's criminal. On the other hand, CIOs are smart. They've been through this before. They don't want to have pockets of investment -- they want platforms. We're seeing platforms start to rise."
Sitaram: "Our view is that the platform will win out in the end. I don't think we can define today what you're going to have to plug into this platform five years from now. But if you let that mish-mash grow, our customers our going to be in a difficult situation."
Rangaswami solicited the biggest response from the audience with his comment: "I don't think the mish-mash can grow. It took IBM 40 years to become evil. It took Microsoft 20. It took Google 10. It took Facebook five. It took Twitter two and a half. What is actually happening is that the tolerance level of the individual, in accepting behaviors that are monolithic or siloed, has sharply declined. . .I expect to see that anyone who says one size fits all in an enterprise will fail."
What's your take? Let me know, by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me directly at email@example.com.
Follow me on Twitter: (@awolfe58)
Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.