Andrew McAfee on the state of Enterprise 2.0

When Andrew McAfee speaks about Enterprise 2.0, he tends to grab your attention. That's partly because McAfee is credited with coining the term back in 2006 and partly because his professorial demeanor and high intellect command respect.

Whatever the reasons, I had the privilege of interviewing McAfee a couple of weeks ago and we talked about the current state of Enterprise 2.0.

McAfee, for those of you unfamiliar with him, is a busy man. He is currently principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business. His most recent book, Race Against the Machine was written with Center for Digital Business colleague, Erik Brynjolfsson. What's more, he recently worked with AIIM to produce a series of White Papers called "When Social Meets Business Real Work Gets Done."

I asked McAfee if he had any idea of how popular a notion Enterprise 2.0 would become when he coined the term 6 years ago. He said he had an inkling, but he has been surprised by how it took off.

"The instant I saw this new technology tool kit, I knew it would be a big deal for business," he said.

That's because McAfee said these tools were clearly so much better at harnessing knowledge and giving users a voice than anything that was available at the time. He added that Enterprise 2.0 tools were addressing some key organizational problems.

McAfee said that he can't take credit for the technology of course, which had its roots in the technology of the Web 2.0 movement (and were simply being applied to the enterprise), he said, "I had a strong belief this was going to be a big deal."

Fast-forward to today and McAfee says Enterprise 2.0 is still very much in flux and we are still learning, but now there are some clear patterns about what works and what doesn't. He says, you can't simply build a system and hope people will use it. What's equally bad is trying to force-feed the wrong technology and expecting it to work. This much we know.

But if you build the right system with the right ingredients, it can work brilliantly. He says, you need to start with executive buy-in and executive involvement, but he warns executives need to lead from behind and not spend a lot of time trying to organize the community from the top down.

"Tools that succeed don't try to define too much in advance," McAfee explained. He suggests building an environment that's addictive and as easy-to-use as possible, then letting users share and interact in a free-form way. He also suggests avoiding too many rules and letting the community grow and develop in a natural way, and the community will impose its own cultural norms, rules and structures over time.

And we've seen this over time, that even when extremely conservative companies implement these systems, the community imposes order and that works far better than HR or an outside force trying to impose rules and regulations that tend to stifle free interaction and discussion.

When McAfee lead a real-world study at AIIM there were success stories, but one of the surprises was the finding that sales and marketing were still not communicating well--despite having Enterprise 2.0 tools in place to help. The historic divide between the two departments could not be bridged easily, even with this technology.

McAfee says while he has not carefully studied these two departments in his career, he is aware that sales tends to be technology averse and that could be part of the problem. No matter how good a piece of technology might be, you still need to have people who use it. He added that sales people tend to be independent and go their own way and they're motivated by different things than other employees. He does acknowledge, however, that with mobile tools, sales is beginning to embrace technology a bit more.

Regardless of the sales-marketing communications enigma, Enterprise 2.0 is clearly making its mark inside companies today and executives recognize the power of communication to drive innovation and create new ways of managing and understanding knowledge inside the enterprise. Andrew McAfee has been a driving force behind that change since day one. - Ron