02 November 2008

Enterprise 2.0 & it's effect on Organisational Culture

Back in 2007, Tom Davenport posted a critical article on Andrew McAffee's Enterprise 2.0 idea. He put forward the view that while Prof. McAfee is a nice guy, and his ideas are very interesting, they were "not going to become the next big thing", and certainly "won't make organizational hierarchy and politics go away".

In commenting on the article, David Weinberger wrote the following which I think touches on my own thoughts of the article quite nicely:
Tom, technology has never done anything on its own. So, I agree: the tools themselves won't bring about Enterprise 2.0. Tools by themselves can't even assemble a cabinet from Ikea. (On the other hand, can anything assemble a cabinet from Ikea?)
But, our tools when taken up do have an effect on how we interact. Some of the effects are direct -- e.g., wikis enable a type of asynchronous collaborative, negotiated writing not exactly like anything before them -- and some of the effects will undoubtedly be indirect. E.g., once we've used wikis productively, perhaps our attitude toward the nature of authority will change a little. Maybe not; the effects of technology on attitudes and expectations are hard to observe much less predict.
But it's reasonable to think that the technology, when taken up and used, will affect enterprises directly and indirectly...and (I suspect) in the direction E2.0 adumbrates.
Or not.
This is the crux. Most people who are either hyping Enterprise 2.0 or criticising it seem to be taking extreme positions. Not only that, they are taking quite black and white definitions of the issue of culture and Enterprise 2.0. Often they see this aspect as a chicken and egg dilemma and think that because certain cultural factors are necessary for Enterprise 2.0 tools to be successfully implemented (the egg comes from the chicken) that these tools then cannot modify the culture of the organisation further once implemented (so therefore chickens cannot possibly come from eggs).

My friend Matthew Hodgson from SMS, who I have quickly grown to respect, recently blogged about the above article and a response to it regarding Enterprise 2.0 and culture change. While I am sometimes scared by how similar Matt and my views are, I found some of his points hard to integrate with the recent views of culture. Hannerz, in discussing the term Cultural Complexity says:
"The term 'complex' may in itself be about as intellectually attractive as the word 'messy,' but one of its virtues in this context is precisely its sober insistence that we should think twice before accepting any simple characterization of the cultures in question in terms of a single essence."
The definition of culture I am using for my thesis is based upon Strauss & Quinn from Duke University:
"Culture … consists of regular occurrences in the humanly created world, in the schemas people share as a result of these, and in the interactions between these schemas and this world. When we speak of culture, then, we do so only to summarize such regularities"
As Matt points out, "Tools don't change people, people change people". But just like stone axes, bronze swords, the steamship, coal & oil technologies and the telephone before them, tools effect the way people can manipulate their environment AND interact with one another, and in the area of communications tools, culture is effected even more dramatically. My family's relaxation culture was changed irreversibly with the purchase of a television with a built-in hard-drive that allows us to pause live TV. Kids now come to dinner mid-TV shows, Movies can be paused to sooth a child's nightmare. Stress levels have never been so low!

Responding to Tom Davenport's article, Dion Hinchcliffe wrote a ZDNet article suggesting that Enterprise 2.0 tools weren't the cause of change, but rather a catalyst to speed up change via the cultural modifications I just touched on, but also that the fundamentally social nature and ease of use of these tools makes them their own change agent, making the users their own change advocates which helps overcome many of the cultural barriers that previous technologies have run in to.

I am not sure I agree with everything he had to say and he admits to being biased, however I think he is on the right track. Matt wasn't quite so enthused though, and in his blog post this week, he attacks the article from the viewpoint of Organisation Psychology by pointing out that based on a study by three HCI academics, Culture effects wiki use, but wiki use does not effect culture. I have several concerns with Matts summary and the study it was based upon, so please forgive me Matt as I dissect both in an attempt to get my thoughts straight. I hope it comes across as criticism, not cynicism.

1. The wikipedia study consists of a statistical analysis searching for correlations between Hofstede's cultural metrics (Power Distance, Collectivism versus Individualism, Femininity versus Masculinity, and Uncertainty Avoidance) and certain types of editing actions on Wikipedia pages in several languages.
A) Hofstede himself admits that these metrics are to be used at national levels and can not be transferred to smaller entities such as corporations,
B) He also admits that that should only be used in relation to one another. In other words one country against another country, not one member of a race versus a member of another race,
C) Misuse of Hofstede's work often leads to ecological fallacies where individuals are tarred with the same brush as the average of the group to which they belong. This happens in the study where they suggest that managers should take into account that all French workers "are likely to feel uncomfortable about deleting others' work. It is therefore advisable not to expect or require it of them in collaborative online work." This sort of statement from senior lecturers and PhD students is dissapointing. The fact it made it past peer review, even more so.

2. The paper only declares that culture does effect wiki use (just like previous studies have shown it does on WWW use). It does not follow that the opposite is untrue and this is a one way street.

3. Matt goes on to summarise five types of corporate culture and how they effect information behaviour. Here Matt shows his hand, assuming two things that I believe the Neural Cognition literature does not agree with, but are often seen from the psychological view of culture:
A) he presents the culture as an object in it's own right rather than a collective term for the complex overlapping neural schemas held individually by each member of the group,
B) he sees this culture as the essence of the group's motivation to act and the difference between it and groups with different cultures.
In plain english what I am saying is that everybody is partially the same and partially individual. We are all dissenters at some level. Smaller sections of the group may not exhibit the same "culture" as the main group, and certainly individuals may dissent entirely and often for quite small and personal reasons, such as the sudden ability to have a say in corporate policy.
4. The study itself does not use a longitudinal methodology in order to ascertain if any changes to the culture took place before and after the use of Wikipedia, in fact the study didn't even identify individual editors, but grouped them buy the language they were speaking (to their credit they mention this in their limitations section).

5. And finally, Hofstede's metrics were measured in the 60's and 70's within the IBM corporation's offices around the world. This present several shortcomings:
A) It could easily be argued that IBM's national staff do not properly represent the countries cultures as a whole (and many have argued this),
B) Even if you did try to measure that change, these are national averages and Hofstede's study would have to be conducted all over again to determine a shift.

So, can a tool change a culture?
*YES!* I believe so. They do all the time and have done for centuries.

Can a tool be implemented in a culture if there is a mismatch between the tool and the needs of that culture?
Not likely and if it did, it would be an uphill battle. However, I have evidence of wikis working in divisions, but not successfully transferring up to corporate-wide use. This data suggests that an entire enterprise doesn't need to be exhibiting the flat-wide, open frameworks that Matt speaks of (or the Search, Links, Authoring, Tags, Extensions and Signals (SLATES) that James Dellow quoted of Andrew McAfee recently) for individual groups to be evolving toward this style of operation and therefore being able to successfully implement these tools.

Does this mean these tools cannot change a culture once implemented?
NO, this simply does not follow. Not from Matts logic and not from the study he quotes. In fact, both my research and personal corporate experience have revealed changes in the way businesses operate when knowledge workers encounter new communications possibilities through the use of Enterprise 2.0 tools.

Does that mean Enterprise 2.0 tools are a new breed of tools that will tap into a deep human need, transforming business and corporate structures around the world like we have never seen before?
Of course not! Look I realise I'm pushing against the hype-cycle here, I believe these technologies allow a cultural change that we have not seen before through - amongst other things - the introduction of community into our communications tools which until now have been largely didactic in nature, but on this point Tom Davenport is probably spot-on when he says,
"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".
But please hear me! That doesn't mean they won't be changed at all. These technologies are simply enablers - powerful ones because they tap in to the cultural norms that in the past were usually experienced socially within family, recreational and religious groups. They don't "cause" organisational cultures to change any more than radio technologies caused war fleets to become more coordinated, but they do act as a catalyst to change. Radio didn't just bring over-the-horizon coordination, extending the distance of the semaphore flags. Once the enabler was there, it's convenience and instantaneous nature caused a shift in the command structure of naval fleets which flowed on to Naval strategy and the ways governments could wield that power. It is in these new uses of the technology that the pro-hype people seem to be basing it's success and more-critical people like James seem to be searching for. However, I hate to be boring, but in most cases it will be the little cultural and communications issues being overcome that will probably be the biggest benefit; and for that we simply have to implement them before we will see if solutions emerge. And that is what the Evolutionary aspect of Enterprise 2.0 is all about.

So in conclusion, Matt I will let you modify the "if you build it, they will come" statement if you let me modify yours from "it’s only people who change people’s behaviour" to "it’s only people AND THE WAY THEY INTERACT THAT changeS people’s behaviour".

9 comments:

magia3e said...

This is a great article and a good summary of what's been thrown around as a man or machine debate.

I think we've seen too many projects where it is assumed that because technology has worked to better someone or some organisation that it must then follow that inserting them into another group, whether corporate or otherwise, will cause change in behaviour. We also see it in transferring Management Theory and Practice particularly from the USA into other countries.

Much of the time, however, the transfer and application fail because the dynamics between groups are psychologically different. When you look at the growing user-centred design movement, technology implementations specifically do not work (well) if you also don't take account of the individuals within the group dynamic.

Messy is a great way to describe the complexities at play here. I'd love to agree with you and note how technology itself can be a catalyst for change, but the inner psych in me just says, when every side is considered, that "it depends".

M

Stuart French said...

You can see Matt's follow up blog post here http://magia3e.wordpress.com/2008/11/02/on-culture-group-dynamics-and-adption-of-web-20-tools/

And my response as a comment to that post.

Stephen Bounds said...

Great article Stuart -- I pretty much agree with all your point.

I particularly like the way you try to resolve the conflict between "cultures won't accept tools if they aren't ready for them" and "tools can change culture". Also, great examples of why these apparently conflicting points aren't actually in conflict.

Susan said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Susan

http://www.car-insurance-choices.com

Stuart French said...

Thanks Susan, welcome aboard!

I am trying to bridge the gap between theory and application here as I also document the issues I come across as part of my research.

I am afraid I tend to err either too far on one side or the other, but hopefully with time I will get better at explaining complex topics simply for all KM practitioners to get something from.

I look forward to hearing more from you.

hulk said...

I agree with you. Here's a thought that I found in Andrew Filev's project management blog that is relevant: "tools alone can hardly do the whole job, but they can empower people, and they can catalyze changes in processes."

Samuel Driessen said...

Just wanted to let you know I enjoyed this post. It's been a while ago, and I was going to blog on it. Don't have time now.

Stuart French said...

Thanks Samuel and Hulk.

I will check out the Project Management site it looks good.

I welcome hearing more from both of you in the area of culture and enterprise 2.0.

There is plenty out there about culture change in organisations, however there seems to be little in terms of the capabilities of Enterprise 2.0 tools to make a difference in this area.

Hopefully we can see more studies done and get feedback from implementations to discover how these tools can be used to assist culture change as part of maybe a HR led program?

Who knows where this can lead?

Gavin Stokes said...

I really enjoyed your post, I am currently writing a dissertation titled "How can Social Media tools increase the efficacy of Knowledge Management in organisations?". I have been searching more info on the whole power, culture and web 2.0 question. If you have any pointers it would be greatly appreciated.

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