The folks at McKinsey continue to put out strong content on the impact and implications of the Web 2.0 revolution. This recent interview with MIT’s Andrew McAffee provides a timely, fresh perspective on how social media is changing the way we work. McAffee raises a number of interesting points (which I’ll get into below) but fundamentally sees Web 2.0 tools as having a positive impact on how companies operate.

Among the salient points:

  • Social tools in the enterprise will continue to evolve based on employee use and preferences, as much as what CIOs dictate. There is a strong grass-roots element to the birth and evolution of these platforms.
  • McAffee sees merit in both the top-down implementation approach as well as the more flexible bottom-up model, which he describes as follows: — “… deploy the tools, stop worrying about what’s going to happen, and get out of the way as the management of the company and let it percolate up from down below. Or, if you hear about a grassroots effort, encourage it, support it financially, but, again, get out of the way, let the bottom-up energy happen.”
  • Even in a bottoms-up environment, it’s still very useful to have a clear sign of endorsement from leadership – and ideally active participation from senior executives.
  • In many companies, it’s rarely enough to just deploy the new tools and expect change to occur quickly…it can take a major cultural shift for the tools to be fully adopted by employees. In fact, McAffee suggests getting mass adoption remains a big challenge for many organizations.
  • Too many companies lack the patience to create relevance and drive traffic to the new tools, and are too quick to diagnose a slow start as a failed experiment. As McAffee puts it: “They don’t have the patience to let people migrate over to the new way of working, and they don’t invest enough time in signaling that this is actually what we want to have happen. They don’t think enough about how to encourage use.”
  • Another recipe for failure is to focus too much on potential risks and downsides – which can become paralyzing and stifle any change or risk-taking.
  • Using a half-hearted approach – like launching  an enterprise blog with no comment function and press-release content – will likely result in failure. Commitment must be real and robust conversation must be fostered for the effort to be credible.
  • Many CIOs see their role as limiting risk, but though valid this conservative approach can be taken too far and preclude valuable progress and innovation. McAffee argues the potential security risks of Web 2.0 tools are often overblown, and this concurs with my experience where actual abuses are few and far between.
  • Middle managers who see their role as gatekeepers of information will feel threatened by these changes, but progressive managers with a more holistic approach will still be relevant (face-to-face remains critical) and should see great potential in these tools.
  • In terms of metrics, the companies that are successful are focusing on their specific deployment objectives rather than trying to use a generic ROI approach. McAffee states: “When I see successful companies tackling this tool kit, I see them doing a little bit of thinking upfront about what problem or opportunity they’re trying to address, then deploying an appropriate technology in response to that. They then measure progress: How much uptake are we getting? What’s the traffic look like on this? Which is very different than measuring ROI…..”

Most of McAffee’s comments ring true for me and mirror the issues and debates I’ve seen first-hand in several organizations. Perhaps the biggest lesson here is to avoid adopting Web 2.0 technology with too many preconceptions or iron-clad rules. What experience has taught us is the adoption of social media tools in the enterprise is an unpredictable process… but one that continues to have great promise.

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