Web 2.0- Was It Ever Alive?

This is a guest post from Mr. Dennis Howlett:

As I look down the speaker list for Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin it’s hard not to yawn. Pretty much the same voices I could have seen at any combination of web conference around the world in 2005, 2006 and 2007. When are we going to hear something new? OK so it’s not all regurgitated stuff but after three years of the most relentless pimping I’ve seen for an idea, are we not a tad worn out with hearing the same stuff? More to the point and despite Forrester’s feel good Groundswell, surely we deserve better?

At best, the benefits I’ve seen brought about by web 2.0 adoption are marginal. The notion that ground up business adoption would sweep the earth hasn’t happened. And it won’t. Last week I was in Berlin for SAP TechEd. Say what you will about this company, the fact is their technology touches 50% of the world’s IT systems. Yet as was the case in Las Vegas a few weeks before, less than 5% of the 4,500 attendees had even heard of Twitter, the topic du jour across a thousand blogs. As Fred Wilson said in his recent mea culpa:

Twitter has yet to cross the chasm to mainstream usage. It’s not immediately obvious to anyone why they should use Twitter

He’s right. I’m betting that of the near 2,000 people that follow me, less than 10% are truly active. That’s why we showed three specific use cases when we demonstrated ESME. It is no coincidence that the loudest applause came when we showed messaging inside a testing process. It comes down to a simple truth: content without context and process is meaningless.

I believe the biggest barrier though has come in the use of terms and language that simply don’t resonate with business. In my social psychologist trained mind, the term ‘social media,’ a cornerstone of web 2.0, is one of the most egregious abuses of a term I’ve seen since the early days of ERP. After three years of listening to definitions of the term I can guarantee that 99% of the press releases I see are exactly the same as those I would have received 5, 10 or even 20 years ago. They’re still dopey, riddled with double speak and wrung dry of useful content. So where’s the value in all this socmed stuff? Show me how customer service has radically improved as a result of applying web 2.0/social media services? Where are those most forward of technology adopters – banks – in all this? What about the main consulting groups that drive adoption inside big business? Heck, I’ve got them calling me up – so you know it’s got to be bad.

In what I can only call a moment of serendipitous good fortune, my Irregular colleague Bob Warfield rails against those who think that Web 2.0’s big brother Enterprise 2.0 is dead:

The web is a huge communication channel, fully on par with any other, but younger and growing much more rapidly.  You only have to look to Google’s results yesterday <Google reported good earnings in a lousy economy> to see that the web can change everything.  Every aspect of how companies do business with each other, their partners, customers, employees, and any other entity will be impacted before it’s all over.

Do only a few companies own every aspects of how telephones affect business?  Even just mobile?  What about snail mail?  You name the channel, and the web has a role to play.  Paper versus electronic?  We just talked about that vis a vis O’Reilly <who shipped a white paper on wood pulp instead of electronically>.

Very little in the way of Enterprise Software has properly understood the potential impact the web has on that niche or how to even begin to respond to it.

So, will generic Wikis, Blogs, Forums and the like devolve into just a few companies with most of the players going away?  Sure, but there is a lot more to E2.0 than that.  We’re barely getting started understanding what it all means.

Bob goes on to point out the use cases he sees, drawing links from others who are more positive on the topic. Because we’re so early, we need fresh minds and fresh thinking. An example: I was particularly struck by an SAP Developer Network post that talks about open source software offered for use in disaster situations. The author argued that adding in a social element like ESME (his call not mine) could add fresh potential to providing the right resources in emergency situations. Smart thinking indeed.

In my mind what we should really be talking about is collaboration and not limiting our thoughts to sales and marketing. Neither should we be positioning web 2.0 as a silver bullet. Collaboration is a topic that some of us have been noodling for more than 10 years yet major obstacles remain. You can add all the social software you want but getting more than a small number to actively participate and use is a devil’s own job. I’ve got the scars to prove it from projects I’ve been running the last two years. There are precious few signs that Nielsen’s 1:9:90 participation inequality law is in any danger of being proven wrong. The people I meet squirm at the notion of ‘social anything.’ Sure, the Facebook generation is coming at us older curmudgeonly types. But you can bet the moment they hit the greasy pole that is management progression, they’ll have the stuffing knocked out of them. It is the way of the world if you want to get on. If this ‘stuff’ we talk about is to hit the mainstream, there’s a long road ahead.

Force fitting solutions looking for a problem has never worked as a technology adoption driver. Scream all you like about future and soft benefits, business wants solutions to today’s use case problems with tangible ROI and dramatically lower TCO. It wants breakthrough impact not marginal improvement. Until we as an industry recognize that and apply smart thinking to the immediate problems of doing business, then the well meaning ideology of social anything just ain’t going to cut it.

Dennis Howlett is an amazing enterprise thinker and still tolerates me. He blogs at Acc Man.

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