Two business school academics who have disagreed over the viability of social networking in enterprises touched gloves once again Friday during a Webcast debate.
Andrew McAfee, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, is often associated with the phrase "enterprise 2.0," and is bullish on the impact of wikis, blogs, and other Web 2.0-era software within a business context.
In contrast, Tom Davenport, the president's chair in information technology and management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., has been skeptical of Web 2.0 software's value on its own, and argues the functionality may not be all that new.
"A lot of things in wikis could have been done in Lotus Notes," Davenport said during Friday's debate. "Should we get hyped up about a new generation of technology when the old technology could do a lot of the same things?"
Davenport also quibbled with the very phrase "enterprise 2.0," calling it far too dramatic.
"There are some applications for which enterprise 2.0 technologies ... are well suited, but overall the organizational environments in which they're rooted haven't changed very much," he said. "Maybe a better name would have been knowledge management 1.5 or groupware 2.0. It's certainly not the second iteration ever of enterprises, so we ought to make it a higher number or change the first word."
McAfee said it was never his intention to equate social software with sweeping changes in the way companies are organized. "I think that hierarchy and structure are not going to go away, and should not go away," he said. "This is not the magic bullet that's going to sweep away bureaucracy in organizations."
"I would never say it was impossible to collaborate before 2004. That would be ridiculous," he added at one point. "My only point is that the toolset for doing so is much better."
The debate's focus eventually turned to cultural barriers facing Web 2.0 adoption in enterprises, such as the ingrained reluctance company leaders may have over ceding some control over the flow and movement of business information.
"That is a very common mindset for execs," McAfee said. "If you are willing and able to give up control, what you end up getting out is very rarely negative and very often positive."
Fears about security aren't unwarranted, but hardly new, either, McAfee suggested: "A Xerox machine is a proven way of stealing secrets."
McAfee said a senior human resources manager at one company told him that, due to concerns about whether younger workers were talking about the business through their social-networking accounts, the firm did a sweep through its user profiles. The worst thing the company found was a photograph of a training session in which some dummy account numbers could be seen on a board, he said.
But Davenport had a ready retort, saying such anecdotes are merely "further evidence these tools are not a big breakthrough. The fact you're not finding a whole lot of changes in negative behavior? It's the other side of the coin, you're not finding a whole lot of changes in positive behavior."
Davenport also criticized the notion that an internal blogosphere can be good for all types of companies. Installing one assumes that a firm's senior officials are actually interested in hearing from the rank-and-file, he argued.
"I think that's why walk-around management was invented. ... you're going to pay much more attention to the people you talk to than the words you get from someone's blog, sitting at your desk browsing around one night," Davenport added.
"I'm never going to argue that enterprise 2.0 makes face-to-face discussion irrelevant," McAfee replied. "What it makes you able to do is keep tabs on a lot more of what is happening in an organization."