Friday, 5 November 2010

Getting cynical - or real? - about E2.0

Is the Enterprise 2.0 concept going anywhere? Ever since Andrew McAfee coined the phrase there have been various evangelists beating the drum for it. I suppose I could count myself as one of them, at least to a degree. There are various definitions, but I want to stick with what seems to me to be the most radical version, which is the concept of making organisations less hierarchical, less command-and-control, more 'human' and maybe a little anarchic, as a result of introducing Web 2.0 style technologies into the enterprise and getting the workforce to use them.

It's a lovely idea, it really is. But, you, know, it has me thinking back to past 'enthusiasms' relating to the re-invention of corporate life. One of these was TQM (now pretty-much morphed into Six Sigma). TQM was more than just techniques for using statistics and measurement to identify the root cause of defects and so enable process improvement. It was that, but it included - read your Deming - calls to "drive out fear", and "Remove barriers that rob the hourly paid worker of his right to pride in workmanship". Many managers viewed this sort of talk as subversive, and internal consultant types who promoted it, like me, as dangerous anarchists. Ditto 'change programmes': very cathartic for junior workers who at last had a voice with which to grass up the more egregious managers, and fun if you were a facilitator, but, not surprisingly, anathema to middle management. Yet the objections often remained unspoken, because it would be like objecting to motherhood and apple pie.

What these managers (some poor, but some actually rather good) really wanted to say was, "I hear what you say, and it's good in theory, but let me tell you two things: 1. It's not how real work gets done, and 2. I have a team to run, and I'm damned if I'll let your initiative or any other get in the way of that."

So what has this got to do with Enterprise 2.0? A great deal, I suggest. Many managers will see wholesale public transparency of thought on the part of the workforce, even behind the firewall, as dangerously subversive. They will pay lip service to it, because it's hard to voice objections without seeming to be a fascist. But they won't encourage it, and may well put roadblocks - disguised, perhaps, as security concerns - in the way.

How about just getting rid of all middle managers? After all, with the improvement in communication and collaboration that Enterprise 2.0 offers, who needs them? Strange how that question seems to have been posed repeatedly for several decades, even before the advent of E2.0, but it never seems to happen. Maybe they're needed after all?