Today’s Web 2.0 day, apparently: the topic is all over the place. But this time it’s even more relevant than in previous posts. The backlash has begun.
Tom Davenport is one of the most influential business writers of the last years. He’s got the ear of organizations and the educational establishment. And he’s just published an article at his “Next Big Thing” column at the HBR setting out why he does not believe in Enterprise 2.0, a concept he attributes to his Harvard colleage Andrew McAffee (not wholly unreasonably given his writing on the subject) and which briefly means the empowerment of knowledge workers throughout the organization thanks to Web 2.0 technology, with miraculous productivity gains as a result.
To quote almost half the article: “The absence of participative technologies in the past is not the only reason that organizations and expertise are hierarchical. Enterprise 2.0 software and the Internet won’t make organizational hierarchy and politics go away. They won’t make the ideas of the front-line worker in corporations as influential as those of the CEO. Most of the barriers that prevent knowledge from flowing freely in organizations – power differentials, lack of trust, missing incentives, unsupportive cultures, and the general busyness of employees today – won’t be addressed or substantially changed by technology alone“.
I couldn’t agree more.
McAffee himself sort of agrees to the criticism and warns against “techno-determinism”: technology indeed isn’t enough. But then he goes on to expound the web 2.0 participatory technologies as something really new under the sun, actually being used by managers to change the flow of knowledge and authority in corporations, and able to prove that it is a competitive advantage.
I don’t buy either. Web 2.0 is just a convenient tag to bundle information emergence and online collaboration tools, some of them much older than Web 2.0; they won’t overturn old (and sometimes sound) principles of management. They won’t empower the knowledge workers half as much as we would like. They might provide a tool for organizational knowledge management and distributed teamwork, two complex practices currently being slowly incorporated into organizations, and proving their value by extending worker productivity. Some corporations are much faster in this than others. But in most, it is doing nothing (and will do very little) to empower the knowledge worker, and a lot to make him (us) more efficient. Empowerment is a management philosophy, not a technology.