As organizations begin to embrace social tools to collaborate, connect workers together, capture knowledge, and drive innovation they soon encounter a phenomenon that they weren’t necessarily expecting. As critical mass is achieved and general participation rises, there is a subsequent, and often dramatic, increase in the volume of information that is visible on the local intranet.

Now I should be clear that the intranet is often a depressingly static place even today in many organizations. But those applying Enterprise 2.0 (social, emergent, freeform approaches to business activities) can soon find that the opposite is often the case. The information captured and the knowledge shared in a social business environment is usually globally visible and lasts long after the collaboration ends.

And this new information visibility is invariably a good thing. These ever expanding and socially created “knowledge trails” form a deeply linked web of information that continue to provide repeated value over time as they build up on an organization’s intranet.

The Three Waves of Enterprise 2.0

I’m calling this information explosion scenario the “first wave” of Enterprise 2.0. Most businesses today are just learning what this is, how large it will be, and what it means for them. While business information used to be much more localized and was frequently submerged in proprietary IT systems and databases, the information generated by social business activities (both ad hoc and intentionally designed) is much more externally and globally visible. This is the concept of network effects by default, whereby any individual contribution increases the knowledge of the whole organization, rather than just one person or group of persons.

But this can leave organizations awash in what I called exposed information, or data that is visible but not necessarily immediately usable. Once active social computing communities start generating shared knowledge, the act of browsing the intranet or using enterprise search engines causes much more information to be discovered, some of it relevant in the moment but most of it probably not.

There is a similar efficiency challenge with keeping track of frequently updated and changing blog posts, wiki pages, forum discussions, and social network activity streams. And this is why, out on the Web, solutions such as feeds and feed reader were invented. In the enterprise space, one of the core patterns identified to deal with this is something known as “signals”, which are ways to efficiently pull fresh changes in the information landscape to interested parties.

But it’s starting to become clear that signals aren’t enough, especially as enterprise data enters the equation. It often doesn’t take long before important business data gets copied or linked into Enterprise 2.0 environments leading to real master data management issues. We also see both new open data approaches that access previously submerged data repositories as well as the addition of social models to existing enterprise applications (think SocialCalc.) The lesson: Social computing actively drives data that’s hidden in core IT out to the edge, where everyone that needs it can get to it.

Ultimately, this will lead to an information explosion that enterprises will have to figure out how to deal with. Those that follow my work know that one of my favorite quotes is Clay Shirky’s “It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure.” And this directly helps point the way to the maturity curve for those that meaningfully adopt Enterprise 2.0. While we want access to all the information that is available, but we really only want to see it when it matters. However, organizations will usually achieve the former before they can figure out how to deliver on the latter.

Thus I beginning to see at least three major phases, or waves, of Enterprise 2.0 adoption when it comes to the rich tapestry of socially information that is being created, managed, and consumed.

The Three Waves of Enterprise 2.0

  1. 1st Wave: Information Explosion. Once workers have the ability to put information on the intranet,change it, and engage in conversation, the amount of exposed information on the local network will grow rapidly. Open data initiatives, especially ones that are Web-oriented, will further increase the amount of data accessible. At first this won’t be a major problem, but as the entire organization begins to change its habits and engage, the amount of information will climb until it’s difficult to deal with using existing capabilities, both at a worker level and at an infrastructure level, such as search engine relevancy. At this point in the Enterprise 2.0 maturity curve, the growing information abundance will represent a significant business advantage that can only be partially realized.
  2. 2nd Wave: Information Filters. Organizations will move to adopt filters to reduce the amount of exposed information on the network. That’s not to say that it will be removed or hidden, but it won’t be as visible in things like search engines, recommendation systems, or activity streams unless it’s considered relevant. Keyword analysis, tags and hashtags, and social recommendations are some simple ways that filters like this can be applied today without additional complexity or software. The next step, with capabilities like semantic search (such as what Intrix is looking at providing) are a good example of 2nd generation filters that can provide even more leverage.
  3. 3rd Wave: Information Shadows. While filtering will help deal with the rapid growth in exposed information volume on enterprise intranets, getting a deeper understanding of what an enterprise really knows will require another level of improvement in our ability to percieve deeply and strategically into the webs of information that build up in social computing environments. This is part of the emerging Web Squared discussion, which is pointing out some of the way forward here. For example, social analytics is part of this 3rd wave of maturity that will give us an actionable view of the collective intelligence that builds up in organizations that actively engage in Enterprise 2.0 activities. In the end, deriving real business intelligence from the information that communities of workers, partners, and even customers are creating is central to getting the full ROI of social computing. Fortunately, some early solutions for this are just now starting to emerge like Connotate’s Enterprise 2.0 BI or IBM’s new Smart Analytics Cloud.

In my view, organizations will likely go through these phases in discrete steps as the end result drives epiphanies that makes them move to the next wave. This will be because they now understand the benefits of the next step or sometimes just out of sheer need. Ultimately, the delta between the amount of exposed knowledge you have and the work that is required to reach what you need will determine your consumption efficiency in this new world of information abundance. It will therefore be the measure of your ability to access business value with Enterprise 2.0.

But as enterprise social computing clearly enters the mainstream this year, understanding the the impact information abundance will have on your organization is essential to success.

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