Enterprise 2.0: A Parallel Meritocracy

How New Consumer Web Technologies Were Migrating Into Enterprise, Triggering Profound Shifts in Communication and Collaboration Based Business Processes

On a sunny-overcast, hot-cold morning in February, Jane Doe shows up for her first day of work at XYZ Software, Inc., in her pajamas. She is working virtually out of her home in California for a firm in Minneapolis. Instead of heading for a week of orientation, she dives straight into work. By 9 a.m., she has already fixed two critical bugs reported the previous night and has spent 10 minutes chatting with her two best friends at work, both part of her extensive network at XYZ. She already knows XYZ’s systems and people from having worked on a week-long freelance assignment that she won through an online marketplace. She earned that gig by establishing a reputation as a top-ranked member of XYZ’s open-source developer community.

She takes a break to shower and eat breakfast and returns to her computer to discover an e-mail from an HR administrator telling her that her status has been changed from “premium customer” to “employee” and directing her to work through an online wiki-based course on software bug resolution processes. She laughs out loud and e-mails the administrator of the course, “I wrote most of that wiki! Are you new here?”

This paradoxical scenario could play out today. The cause? The broad trend known as Enterprise 2.0.


The term “Enterprise 2.0” was coined by Andrew McAfee in “Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration,” published in Spring 2006 in the MIT Sloan Management Review. McAfee’s now-classic article was about how new consumer Web technologies were migrating into the enterprise, triggering profound shifts in communication and collaboration based business processes. It is now widely recognized that these technologies— which include elements such as blogs, wikis, RSS, social networks, all wired together in flexible, ad hoc ways using what IBM calls “service-oriented architecture”—have the capacity to transformhow work is done. For knowledge work in particular, “2.0”was a game changer, McAfee noted, because new technologies and business processes make it possible to capture, share, and make meaning from information in radically different ways.

In his framework,McAfee used the acronym SLATES to highlight six components of Enterprise 2.0 technologies: Search, Links, Authoring, Tags, Extensions and Signals. Information platforms had to be searchable, built by groups, open, editor- free, categorized by users, extendable, and with the ability to signal users about new content using filtering and aggregation. Stepping back, these technologies all manifest three major organizational design elements: user-generated content, rich Internet applications, and online communities. Unleashing these three elements in the enterprise, the theory goes, can create organic, emergent learning organizations that do away with much of the brittle, bureaucratic process scaffolding in mechanistic organizations.

Building Enterprise 2.0 organizations incorporating SLATES,McAfee suggested, meant focusing on ease-of-use for the masses while remaining fuzzy on how work should be done and how a knowledge worker’s output should be classified or structured. This idea is not new, of course, and Drucker’s “Management by Objectives” model was informed by the same insight, that knowledge workers can not really be told “how” to do their work. But in Enterprise 2.0, this laissez-faire school of management can be enabled in ways Drucker never imagined. If it is to have any teeth though, this focus on enabling work over defining it, requires the creation of an organization where openness, collaboration and individual initiative are prized over control, group-think and conformism.

It is a revolution in the making, and learning as a function will perhaps be its epicenter.


Games illustrate how Web 2.0 technologies can transform learning. Not the anemic and schoolmarmish games designed specifically for e-learning in the past, but efforts like the America’s Army online multi-player game, which was created by the U.S. Army and is now its most effective recruitment tool. Drawing on the principles behind commercial online multi-player games such as World of Warcraft, modern game-based learning environments are immersive, engaging, and require learners to self-organize and learn from peers through collaboration. Matthew Fraser and Soumitra Das, authors of “Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom,” believe that such gaming environments might well be the breeding grounds for future CEOs. Signs are already visible: GE, for instance, conducts power plant maintenance training in online 3-D virtual worlds, where employees learn under the watchful virtual eyes of training supervisors.

There are limits of course, to what can be discovered and self-learned even within the richest gaming meta-narratives. Even in traditional e-learning models though, fundamental changes are under way. The formal “classroom” and “book” metaphors within a silo destination site (“school”), may be on their way out. Learning in Enterprise 2.0 can happen in situ as it were, embedded in 2.0 operational workflows, supported by documentation wikis and blogs. In this environment, learning professionals will need to help curate and catalyze ad hoc learning in the digital wild, influencing both learners and their workplace mentors, rather than restricting their work to formal learning programs.We are beginning to see the true emergence of what former Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown called “distributed learning milieus,” which lead to learners “being embedded in a social milieu supported by both a physical and virtual presence and inhabited by both amateurs and professionals.”

Important forces driving these changes arise from the labor force itself. Formal learning today is a costly investment of time and money, and the modern information worker is increasingly reluctant to invest in non-portable skills. Primary among these are low-attraction skills associated with obscure, arbitrary and bureaucratic company- specific workflows and their associated IT systems. Why, the modern worker demands to know,must he attend hours of training to learn to use a temperamental old IT system when equivalent work in his private life seems to require only intuitive and free technology from the likes of Google, and requires no training at all? For many workflows, he might even demand to know why policies and procedures are required at all, when free-form improvisation seems to achieve better results than defined policies.

This isn’t an isolated case of more demanding expectations from lazier workers but part of a pattern of increasing informality and efficiency. A classic example is the changing nature of software development. Planning and documentation-heavy “waterfall” practices, which required huge amounts of overhead and still delivered buggy and late code, are giving way to so called agile-programming practices, which drive quality and on-time delivery by relying on continuous high-bandwidth communication among team members.

This pattern is only one among many. Enterprise 2.0 is potentially a revolution at the level of business models, not merely an isolated point-impact technology that can be “deployed” by IT departments. As Peter Capelli demonstrated in “Talent on Demand,” we are witnessing the denouement of a decades-long process of dismantling of business models predicated on long-range succession planning. Other disruptive forces are being unleashed, ranging from the growth in virtual and home-based work (which can undermine some of the basic premises of e-learning technology) to growing use of very short-term“on demand” labor acquired through online labor markets. (How do you train an employee who is only with you for a week?)

Thanks to the emphasis on user generated content, learning in Enterprise 2.0 is also becoming a two-way street— through mechanisms such as online innovation brainstorms and “prediction markets” (where employees trade stocks representing future decisions or product launches)— employees can actively engage in changing the organization itself.

Perhaps the most disruptive element in 2.0 technologies is that they allow visible accumulation of online social capital, through formal and informal peer-rating mechanisms. Where formal learning systems are based on assigning ascriptive status through instructor-awarded certifications, the online world of enterprise 2.0 allows the emergence of a parallel meritocracy based on crowd assessed de facto value.

As with Jane and XYZ Inc., your company’s best source of knowledge on widget maintenance might not be the instructor of the official course on widget maintenance. It might be a de facto opinion leader on a discussion forum. It might not even be an employee but a passionate customer operating in prosumer mode, enjoying and actively cultivating her status as an expert in the user community. Formal “communities of practice”with recognized “subject-matter experts” from the knowledge-management era could well face obsolescence given the rise of open, informal models of knowledge sharing.


It is 4 p.m., and Jane Doe is back from her son’s soccer game. She settles in for another few hours of work. She warms up by reading a few internal blogs, rating a few blogs, and posting a few comments. She then clicks over to the XYZ internal marketplace, looking for work. She knows from her freelance experience that the plum assignments at XYZ are actually traded internally, using XYZ Inc.’s virtual “doubloon” currency.Only the dregs are farmed out to external online marketplaces using precious real-world dollars. She wanders into a part of the company’s 3-D virtual world that she previously had no access to, and at a virtual storefront labeled “e-learning bazaar” she runs into a courteous HR manager in a dragon avatar.

After a short conversation with the dragon, she finds what she is looking for: an online role-playing game, based on simulated real world sales calls. With a click of her mouse, she pays 1,000 doubloons from her new employee learning account and teleports over. The dragon-manager is pleased. That’s the 10th sale of the evening from the revamped course catalog, and the learning department has been raking in the doubloons this quarter. The future looks good.

—Venkatesh Rao holds a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering. He is a Web technology researcher with the Xerox Innovation Group, where he works on document, workflow and online marketplace technologies. Janet Clarey is an analyst at the independent research firm Brandon Hall Research. She writes about workplace learning for two award-winning blogs and has written many research reports at www.brandonhall.com. Rao and Clarey “met” on Twitter and wrote this article collaboratively using Google Docs. Rao works remotely for the Xerox research center in Rochester, N.Y., from his home in Arlington, Va. Clarey works from her home office in upstate New York for her California-based employer.

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