McAfee vs. Davenport … I Side with Davenport

Assoc. Professor Andrew McAfee from Harvard Business School summarizes his debate with Professor Tom Davenport on Enterprise 2.0 this morning as such:

After one review of the video, it seems to me that our main point of disagreement concerned the extent to which the E2.0 toolkit really is something new, or whether it’s just an incremental extension to the longstanding set of technologies for collaboration, interaction, and information sharing. Tom stressed repeatedly that companies have been deploying such tools for decades, and he kept explicitly and implicitly asking the important question: what, if anything, is new now?

In my opening remarks and a few times subsequently, I tried to articulate my answer to this question: that digital platforms that initially impose little or no structure on interactions, but that contain mechanisms to let patterns and structure emerge over time, are actually quite new. I’ve written about this a few times before, and for me it’s the key to understand what’s going on currently, and why so many of us are hopeful that the new toolkit will take off within companies. The idea of using group-level technologies not to impose structure (roles, identities, hierarchy, workflow, data formats, taxonomies, etc.) but instead to try hard to get out of the way and let structure emerge is, I maintain, a pretty novel one. And, I further maintain, a pretty important one.

And then he asks for feedback.

Michael’s Response
This is my response.

  1. Lotus Notes Let Structure Emerge (early 1990s) … Lotus Notes includes a Discussion Database template out of the box. The only structure it has when first used is that of a main post and a response. No structure is enforced on roles (unless the group decides to do that), identity (you can permit anonymous contributions, or tie identity to the directory if so required), hierarchy (unless the group decides to do that), on workflow (unless the group wants to do so), data formats (aside from the enforced Notes format for Notes documents, you can attach other files and documents to a Notes document), and on taxonomies (unless the group wants to do so). So immediately … there is one example … of the major “groupware” platform in the market today, that has supported all of this since the early 1990s.
  2. Custom Notes Applications Don’t Spontaneously Appear Fully Developed … When custom Lotus Notes applications are being developed for the purpose of supporting a group or team of people in their work, it doesn’t appear in a fully-formed and final iteration that users are tied to on the first day. There are meetings between Notes developers and business teams. There are prototypes developed. More feedback is sought. Users are encouraged to use early prototypes and give feedback. So … it is entirely possible and highly recommended to let the structure of a Notes application emerge over time through a process of iterative and prototypical development. So … there’s a second example that proves Enterprise 2.0 isn’t new.
  3. The Academic Literature Talks about “Emergence” … In Tyre & Orlikowski’s 1994 Organization Science article entitled Windows of Opportunity: Temporal Patterns of Technological Adaptation in Organizations (restricted access, sorry — as a PhD student I can get to it, and as an academic so can Andrew), they write about the “implementation and use of process technologies in production settings” (p.100), and one of the four dimensions required when choosing case study sites was that “(iii) The technologies were open-ended in the sense that users (with or without assistance) had the means to make changes; hence failure of technological adaptation would not be attributable to an inability of users to manipulate their technologies.” So … there’s a third example of emergence, and in a 1994 academic article in the highly-rated (amongst academics) Organization Science journal.
  4. … in Dourish (2003) … In Dourish’s 2003 article in the Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work entitled The Appropriation of Interactive Technologies: Some Lessons from Placeless Documents (click for a copy of the PDF I found on the Internet), he writes that “customization is inherent to collaboration … it’s a feature of all collaborative practice” (p.2), and “the ongoing, incremental adaptation of interactive technologies is inherent to the emergence of [work] practice” (p.2). If I’ve understood what Paul Dourish is saying, that’s emergence as per McAfee’s definition in earlier technologies.

So … for my money … those four points are amble evidence that there are pre-existing technologies that deliver what Andrew says Enterprise 2.0 “is the first to do” … technologies that have been around for 15 years. My view is in line with Tom’s view … Enterprise 2.0 is merely the latest expression of various technology constructs that have been in other tools for a long time.

And then in terms of Andrew’s final assertion that “emergence” is actually “pretty important”, I wrote this back in October 2006:

  1. Limited applicability to the enterprise … Most enterprises don’t have enough people to permit the “emergence” that Andrew talks about. See slides 32-33 in my August 23 [2006] speech at a New Zealand conference where I examine the applicability of social bookmarking in small and medium-sized enterprises.
  2. Limited explanatory power for decision making in the enterprise … Emergence is definitely not the primary decision criteria for technology within a business enterprise; getting stuff done amongst a collection of actors is. If “emergence” helps, great. But it doesn’t reign supreme.

You’re really got to read the whole post, but I also wrote this:

I assert that Andrew is not considering the historical antecedents of groupware usage and development in the enterprise when he makes this statement, and by virtue of not doing so, the conclusion is wrong. At the point in time in which a “groupware” system is deployed, there is no “structure imposed” on the organization. That structure emerges over time as the people in the business appropriate the groupware technology to help them complete and fulfil the requirements of their jobs. If they’re given permission by IT to let that structure emerge, or if IT works side-by-side in the traditionally espoused IT-business partnership approach to do the same, then structures emerge over time that meet the working conditions and goals of a community / team / group. I think Andrew’s error is looking at a groupware deployment 5-10 years after it’s gone in and concluding that it has “imposed structure” … that’s blatantly untrue. If it was, then we’ll be having this same intellectual argument in another 5 years, by which time Enterprise 2.0 tools and technologies will have become ingrained into the work practices of current workers, and thus new hires will be expected to embrace it, and thus it will “impose structure” rather than letting it emerge.

What’s your view?

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