Web 2.0 Goes Corporate

In my 25 years in the information technology field, I’ve learned how to spot trends that are about to go mainstream. One of my most reliable methods is to attend industry conferences dedicated to some new idea or technology and to look at the name badges of the attendees. Once corporate IT managers start showing up in force, you can be certain that the idea has staying power.

This happened in the late 1980s, when corporate IT attendance at the Comdex conference suddenly surged, presaging corporate adoption of desktop computing. The pattern repeated itself in the 90s with the networking-oriented Interop conference, followed by a series of Internet events late in the decade that drew large IT audiences. The trade shows themselves rarely last for more than a few years, but the ideas they introduced become part of the corporate landscape. I hadn’t seen the trend play out for some time. Until this week.

Despite coming off a two-week travel binge, I skipped out on a pile of unanswered e-mail this week to attend TechWeb’s Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. This event was dedicated to uses of social media technology behind the corporate firewall, and I was curious to see who would show up. I was impressed to see who did.

The more than 400 people who packed the keynote hall on Wednesday represented a blue-chip list of the largest U.S. corporations. There were banks, airlines, consumer packaged goods and pharmaceutical companies. For more than two hours on Wednesday morning a full house listened intently as a series of speakers from Pfizer, Wachovia, Sony and the Central Intelligence Agency talked about what their organizations are doing with internal applications of social media.

Lots of Action

It turns out they’re doing plenty. Pete Fields, senior vice president of the e-commerce division at Wachovia, told how the financial firm is using an integrated social network to capture the knowledge of workers who will be retiring over the next few years. Simon Revell, manager of enterprise 2.0 technology development at Pfizer, showed off a promotion the pharmaceutical company is using to drive internal adoption of an enterprise wiki, podcasts, personal employee spaces and a social bookmarking service.

Ned Lerner, director of tools and technology at Sony Computer Entertainment, spoke of how wikis and open-source project management tools are replacing top-down hierarchy with team solidarity. All the speakers noted that Web 2.0 tools are a necessity to attract the young workers who will make up their future workforce.

The individual empowerment that social media technologies enable is even transforming corporate cultures. In one memorable exchange during a panel discussion, the CIA’s Sean Dennehy remarked that giving up control is the secret to empowering employees to do the right thing. “We need to fight against locked-down spaces,” he said. Moderator Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School couldn’t help noting the irony of that statement coming from a representative of the CIA. But in fact, that organization has been a pioneer in using bloggers to keep close to happenings in remote corners of the globe.

The morning concluded with a series of demonstrations from companies that are building corporate versions of popular social media tools. Among them are Veodia, Aegeon and GroupSwim. A year ago, these companies would have been showing off consumer services. Today, they’re demonstrating the same kind of cool technology you see on YouTube, but with enterprise scale and reliability. More coverage of the event is listed on the conference blog, which is accessible from the home page.

For those who remember the Internet conferences of the late 90s, this is nothing like that. Those early events were about putting up company websites and conducting commerce online. This new breed of conference is about of empowering individuals and decentralizing business decisions. It’s a much more exciting concept, because it transforms the relationship between people and institutions. It’s pretty exciting to hear conservative institutions like Wachovia speak of enabling direct discussions between employees and senior management. A few years ago, that idea was almost unthinkable. Hanging around Enterprise 2.0, I got the sense that it will soon be the way we all do business.

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