Business Brains

The new brain trust: employing collective wisdom to overcome adversity

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Toward the end of last year, as businesses "too big to fail" were being bailed out by the federal government, Harvard professor Andrew McAfee put fort...

Toward the end of last year, as businesses "too big to fail" were being bailed out by the federal government, Harvard professor Andrew McAfee put forth a modest proposal: that the troubled auto industry could use a little less hierarchy and a little more collaborative networking,

McAfee posited a hypothetical case in which one of the Big Three American auto companies was taken over by “enlightened and aggressive new leadership whose only goals are to restore the company to operational and financial excellence” — leadership that “believes firmly in the power of IT to help businesses achieve their goals and differentiate themselves in the marketplace.” McAfee says the way to achieve this is to turn to the collective wisdom of the workforce and partners. In fact, the company is likely awash with knowledge and expertise — which could be surfaced with Enterprise 2.0 approaches and technology, such as collaborative social networking, blogs, and wikis.

McAfee defines Enterprise 2.0 as "the use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers."

It's actually tough to say how much Enterprise 2.0 could help struggling and broken industrial combines such as GM or Chrysler at this stage. But McAfee -- who popularized the term "Enterprise 2.0" a couple of years back -- is on to something. He has distilled much of his thinking into a new book, Enterprise 2.0: New Collaborative Tools for Your Organization's Toughest Challenges, which lays out the business case and promises of Enterprise 2.0. (First chapter available for free download here.)

The promises of Enterprise 2.0 include "significant improvements, not just incremental ones, in areas such as generating, capturing, and sharing knowledge; letting people find helpful colleagues; tapping into new sources of innovation and expertise; and harnessing the 'wisdom of crowds,'" McAfee writes.

However, getting to Enterprise 2.0 and making it work for organizations requires high levels of commitment from management. As McAfee also points out in the book, "the benefits of Enterprise 2.0 are available to any organization. These benefits, however, are not automatic. Experience shows that it’s surprisingly difficult for people and organizations to move away from their current collaborative tools and habits and adopt new ones. Managers must involve themselves in this transition if they want it to be successful." Many organizations, he adds, "feel that they’re currently stumbling rather than excelling" at Enterprise 2.0.  SmartPlanet colleague John Dodge points to a new survey, for example, that finds CEOs behind the curve on social media adoption.

Perhaps even the most complicated challenges -- such as unraveling years of bad management decisions -- could be tackled with greater collaboration, bringing all the minds of the business together. McAfee quotes open-source software proponent Eric Raymond: “With enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow,” and adds:

"With enough brains, many, if not most, business challenges can be met, and Enterprise 2.0 is all about using technology to bring brains together effectively. Now more than ever, this seems a smart thing for organizations to be doing."

For the first time, we have the mechanisms and technology to quickly and effectively capture knowledge from all quarters of the enterprise. But it won't happen overnight -- a great deal of organizational support is needed to harness this collective wisdom, and encourage employee and partner participation in collaborative communities. Companies that learn to bring together many minds to solve problems and promote innovation do so will be light-years ahead of companies relying on the decisions of a few.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure