In case you hadn’t noticed, the world of consumer social media has coalesced around an organizing high concept: the “stream.” Blog posts, wiki articles, tweets, “Like” actions, shared photographs, mobile check-ins–all the action has become part of a constantly flowing river of stimulation and eyeballs called the stream.

It’s not clear whether there are many interacting streams, or one global, capital-S Stream (I prefer the latter interpretation), but either way, the metaphor of a river of flowing information, arising out of social interactions, has become central to our experience of the Social Web.

Exactly the same basic technological ingredients are going into the idea of Enterprise 2.0, but it’s not yet clear whether the stream is the only/best organizing high concept for the social business. Assuming it’s a pretty good candidate, how do we adapt the idea for the enterprise? There are two extreme positions: Leave it untouched, or tame it.

Should You Tame the Stream?

I live in Las Vegas, a few hundred miles from the Grand Canyon and a few dozen miles from the Hoover Dam. The former is a vast and complex landscape carved out by the Colorado river during its violent and temperamental history. The latter is the biggest element of a large-scale physical and political engineering project that ultimately tamed the river, with the help of 10 dams and a water-sharing agreement involving seven states (the 1922 Colorado River Compact).

The consumer Stream is basically like the untamed river, and the Social Web is its Grand Canyon. Communities rise and fall as the Stream changes course frequently and violently. The result is a vast, beautiful canyon, whose walls are the corpses of dead communities. The Stream itself digs ever deeper into the collective consciousness.

Once the river was tamed, however, the violence basically stopped. The river became so completely predictable and managed that an entire (and unsustainable) metro region–Las Vegas–grew to depend on it for water and power. Two large metro regions actually, if you count Los Angeles.

The benefits are tangible: previously uninhabitable deserts, subject to occasional violent floods, became habitable.

The costs are equally obvious: huge and growing populations living precariously and unsustainably off scarce resources.

The metaphor maps quite well to the enterprise stream and the social businesses they’re carving out.

Instead of the political map along the course of a physical river, you have the organization chart with its pre-stream boundaries. Instead of the “natural course” of a physical river, you have patterns of diffusion and adoption. We can extend the metaphor a bit: The enterprise stream has always existed underground, but social technology brings it above ground, where it can be managed more easily, for good or bad.

Within the metaphor, the management challenges come down to two kinds of actions: redrawing boundaries and building dams. The two are strongly coupled.

Redrawing Boundaries

The bigger challenge is to decide whether to redraw boundaries to conform to the natural course of the stream, or to stick to boundaries drawn when the river was underground.

In the case of the Colorado River, while most relevant boundaries run straight, ignoring the river, at least one crucial boundary, between Nevada and Arizona, follows the course of the river in the critical region around Hoover Dam.

In the case of the enterprise social stream, redrawing boundaries means reorganizing the corporation along lines dictated by the successful adoption patterns (where social activity is actually flowing, not dry river beds).

As a simple example, imagine that a lot of customer insight data is accumulating in a successfully deployed customer service tool, with marketing, sales, and engineering constantly bugging post-sales service personnel for access to intelligence. Perhaps it’s time to create a new, expanded Inbound Market Intelligence department by transferring the right people from marketing, sales, and engineering. Possibly the new department ought to be built out of cross-functional teams (with marketing, sales, engineering, and customer service talent) that serve as higher support levels on difficult customer service requests.

As another example, if an internal social network/expertise locator is taking off and people are investing a lot of effort in updating their profiles and keeping their relationship data current, perhaps it’s time for the HR department to be broken up into two: a front-end employee relations part that participates in the social network in an administration/curation capacity, and a back-end records/compliance piece that retains the “HR” name. (Basically, separate good and bad cop functions.)

Some ideas will be stupid in some contexts but smart in other contexts. Some ideas will be smart everywhere, and some will be stupid everywhere. The point is, the enterprise has to start rethinking org charts around stream dynamics.

Building Dams

This is where the Enterprise 2.0 world has to break new ground and go where the consumer Social Web can’t go (and doesn’t need to go).

What does it mean to build dams? It means rethinking access control architecture.

Access control architecture is simply the permissions, security, sharing, and need-to-know principles implemented in a company’s IT infrastructure. This is a function we think we understand, but don’t really. We labor under a false sense of security and comprehension based on 1.0 sharing models.

The reason is that in a previous era, access control was primarily a zero-sum function, with need-to-know as the operating principle. Dams were built primarily to manage and allocate information supply.

Today, it’s also a wealth-generation function: think hydroelectric power, rainwater harvesting, watershed management, and smart agriculture. The stream does more than move value around. It creates value, and a yield management problem.

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