Thursday, September 16, 2010

From water cooler to Web 2.0

On a Linked-In group discussion about organizational intelligence (CBDI Forum), Rob Mocking mentioned the water cooler, which prompted some questions and comments from Richard Gilyead and Ian Macdonald. I'm going to post an edited and expanded version of the discussion here.


Rob expressed some scepticism about formal systems for organizational intelligence, and speculated that the water-cooler might be the most important tool for knowledge management. But obviously a literal water cooler can only support a small number of people at a single location. So what is the internet or intranet equivalent, and what are the organizational and cultural requirements for making a metaphorical water cooler work as effectively as a real one?

As Richard asked

Does this virtual model make the "water cooler effect" a myth since the organisation itself may be small but its partners may be dispersed? Is the "water cooler" actually a personal network that spans organisations? What effect does Web 2.0 have on this (like LinkedIn!)?

Let's start by understanding the value of the "water cooler" to the enterprise. The first point is that people don't just rely on formal information systems and dashboards to know what is going on, they also use a range of informal communication mechanisms including casual and serendipitous chit-chat, as well as Management-By-Walking-Around (MBWA). Some of these mechanisms can be replicated or extended by Web 2.0; in any case, the water cooler merely stands in for anywhere (real or virtual) where these exchanges can take place.

Many IT architects concentrate on building and integrating formal systems (although this task is perhaps increasingly delegated to ERP or SaaS vendors and similar) but organizational intelligence raises the question about the relationship between formal systems and informal systems.

But although Web 2.0 may enable all kinds of communication and sharing that weren't possible before, both inside and outside the organization boundaries, I don't see technology as the efficient cause of change, but merely providing support for change in the organization itself and its processes and capabilities.

Richard made an important observation about strong inward-looking implications of the water cooler. Interestingly, the water cooler metaphor echoes a much older idea of the village pump being the locus of social interaction. (Several Bible stories take place near a well.)

Richard also notes that senior executives tend to rely more on traditional personal networks than on Web 2.0. Of course there are some obvious limitations with Web 2.0, at least as currently available. I posted a fictional example of the Old Boy Network on my blog (Social Networking as Reuse) and suggested it might take a while before Linked-In and Facebook can replicate the kind of affordance offered by more traditional methods.

Ian averred that in 30 years of consulting he never came across an organization where people gathered around a water cooler, and asked if it really happened?
The village pump is more likely, assuming an age where time passes more slowly, but sadly grabbing a coffee and taking it back to your desk is more likely. Of course the village pump was also a major transmitter of disease as untreated sewage would have been piled in middens just yards away and polluted the water source - just as the water cooler/coffee machine can be a source for the rapid spread of baseless rumours.
The main problem we seem to have with the traditional methods of networking is that they are not scaleable or interoperable. Each executive has his/her own personal network of friends and information sources, but that typically results in intelligence silos and thus may not be enough in the face of really large and complex problems.

The main problem we seem to have with Internet-based methods is that they are ungrounded. Poor quality information (rumour) has always existed, but now it can be disseminated globally with a single well-timed Tweet. A great deal of Internet discussion lacks rigour, relevance or respect, and is sometimes quite incomprehensible.

The Internet may therefore simultaneously amplify both intelligence and stupidity, is a constant battleground between them. This is now a large part of the environment in which organizational intelligence must operate.

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