In a recent post, ZDNet blogger Dennis Howlett asserts that Enterprise 2.0 is a “crock.” It’s a smart and thought-provoking post, which has elicited equally smart and thought-provoking replies from Andrew McAfee, Thomas Vander Wal, Larry Hawes, Gil Yehuda, and others.
I think Dennis’s argument is wrong. But it’s interestingly wrong, which is a very good thing. (There’s a special place in heaven for interestingly wrong arguments.) Rather than tackle the’ entire argument, I’ll focus on my favorite part. Dennis writes:
Like it or not, large enterprises – the big name brands – have to work in structures and hierarchies that most E2.0 mavens ridicule but can’t come up with alternatives that make any sort of corporate sense. Therein lies the Big Lie. Enterprise 2.0 pre-supposes that you can upend hierarchies for the benefit of all.
The problem with this provocative sentiment is that Dennis doesn’t understand the difference between transparency and anarchy.
He’s not alone. Dennis has picked up on the unfortunate fact that a lot of Enterprise 2.0 rhetoric has a man-the-barricades, throw-the-bums out flavor. That’s particular true on Twitter, the blogosphere, and industry conferences, where the most outspoken advocates–Dennis’s E2.0 mavens–dominate the conversation. If you listen closely, you can hear La Marseillaise (or is it just Les Miserables?) playing on the hotel muzak.
But when you look at real Enterprise 2.0 implementations in real companies, a different story emerges.
Companies are not using blogs, wikis, social networking, or micromessaging to upend hierarchies. They’re not trying to introduce anarchy to corporate America. They’re not fighting a moral crusade to free the downtrodden knowledge worker from the tyranny of the org chart. But they are using these tools, and using them to good effect.
Successful Enterprise 2.0 practitioners have learned that it’s a mistake to radically realign accountability within their organizations. They respect, preserve, and even reinforce the roles and responsibilities already prevalent within the organization. If your job used to be to manage Tech Support in your company, then guess what your job is after your company adopts Enterprise 2.0? You guessed it: managing Tech Support. That responsibility is still on your shoulders, just as it was in the old days.
The difference is that Enterprise 2.0 gives you and your team information and relationships that help you accomplish the things for which you are and remain responsible. You can see who is working on what, even when you’re on different continents. You can access relevant information from other departments. You can quickly put your fingers on documents otherwise lost in the bowels of your email in-box. You can see and discuss in public the issues that your colleagues are already grumbling about in the company washroom. These are good things, and companies are adopting them because they’re good business.
When Dennis says that “Enterprise 2.0 pre-supposes that you can upend hierarchies for the benefit of all”, he is confusing transparency with anarchy. Put differently, he’s confusing information access with decision rights. (For more on the difference, see McAfee’s The Great Decoupling and Ross Mayfield’s Decoupling Decision Rights and Decentralization. Andy and I also talked about it a couple years ago in a memorable panel discussion at Razorfish.)
Enterprise 2.0 pools information, so that workers can benefit from enhanced access to their colleagues and their colleagues’ work. That’s transparency. But Enterprise 2.0 does not pool decision rights. Embracing Enterprise 2.0 does not mean that workers can assume decision rights that formerly belonged to others. That would be anarchy.
But fear not, oh champions of freedom and enlightenment, all is not lost! Enterprise 2.0 can still free you from the chains that oppress you!
“Hierarchy” is a pejorative term, often used to suggest that senior decision-makers are ignorant, out-of-touch, or otherwise unqualified for the responsibilities the organization accords them. The more transparent an organization is, the less likely that problem is to occur. Open, ongoing conversations with staff, customers, and channel partners make management better-informed, less isolated, and more engaged with what’s really happening in the organization and the marketplace. It’s easier to focus on what really matters, and harder for managers to succumb to yes-men and wishful thinking. And it’s easier for staff to understand management decisions, even when those decisions are controversial or unpopular.
When decisions get made in a transparent organization, we don’t call it Hierarchy. We call it Leadership.