What’s New About Web 2.0?

Mar 10, 2009

I recently sat in on a very exciting presentation about how Web 2.0 will flatten organizations and unleash knowledge and creativity locked up in employees stifled by rigid hierarchies… Oh wait a minute, wasn’t that the same talk I heard about knowledge management and collaboration back in 1998?

In fact, as I was thinking about this during the presentation, another member of the audience pointed this out. Clearly, I’m not the only one wondering where these two approaches diverge. So, what is different? What is the same? Are there lessons that can be leveraged from prior experiences with these concepts?

Well, quite a few things have changed since 1998: 

  • Velocity of information flow: In 1905, Kodak Corporation had a global business without the use of fax machines, email, or even telephones. Every generation of technology since then has increased the clock speed of organizations and enabled vast new networks to form.
  • Degree of connectedness: These days, my air card keeps my laptop connected anywhere--even in moving taxis in relatively remote areas. My blackberry only disconnects on flights. The degree to which we are connected to one another has changed in previously unimaginable ways in a relatively short amount of time.
  • Expectations and acculturation: Remember when people refused to shop online? No one trusted websites and people surely would not put credit card information into a form online. However, as websites were adopted by trusted brands the general population became accustomed to doing more on the web. Mass adoption of technology changes the perception of it. My generation grew up without ubiquitous computing, but the latest buying generation has never known a world without it.
  • Infrastructure: During the dot com boom, businesses received millions of dollars to do things on the internet that we had done behind the firewall for years. Yet, just as the railroad boom and bust of the early 19th century created capacity and infrastructure that later enabled new services and business models, so too did the internet boom and bust pave the way for new, lower cost technologies and services.
  • Application maturity: It’s easier to create applications that leverage networks and easier to integrate applications. New scripting languages and tools, web services, and interoperability standards have made it easier to repurpose content and create mash ups of diverse functionality from different environments.

As a backdrop for this interesting confluence of events, there is a science that deals with large systems that contain many moving parts. Complex systems react, adapt, grow, change and evolve. The internet is a complex system that began with some simple rules for creating pages, linking those pages together and requesting remote display of pages from other machines. From those simple rules, a vast information eco-system supporting all aspects of society has grown and emerged.

When people talk about Web 2.0, they talk about flattening hierarchies, decentralized decision making, unleashing creativity, leveraging collective wisdom, crowd sourcing, mashing up different applications and content sources, and allowing users to generate content. These are all examples of an evolution of basic processes that people engage in whenever they get together and focus their attention on a problem or opportunity. Web 2.0 just vastly expands the scale, depth, and speed at which this is happening.

So the bottom line is this stuff is very old and very new. It’s the same collaboration, creativity, and knowledge creation that people have engaged in since the beginning of human communication—just on a mind-boggling scale. What is important to do is find ways to experiment with Web 2.0 behind the firewall. The most important thing to keep in mind is not to throw away web 1.0 stuff, or be too enamored with principles of "self-organization."

Web 2. 0 is an exciting progression of our world. There is no staying out of the game. Keep your eyes open to new possibilities but recognize that all of this builds on things you have already been doing. Experiment and evolve with new approaches and stay focused on bottom line-benefits without getting side tracked by a grand vision that is too far off. Web 2.0 is an evolution and will enable new solutions that we can’t even conceive of today.