What Does Corporate America Think of Web 2.0? Observations From SXSWi

| May 6th, 2010 | , ,

Anything new and relatively cool is going to be plagued with hype. Summer blockbusters, your favorite band, and most of all, Web 2.0. We can’t agree on the definition of Web 2.0 but we do all agree that it is an important milestone in the evolution of web-based technology. While us designers, developers and creatives have embraced Web 2.0 and have leaned into it with all of our talents and skills, what does corporate america think? What do the suits, chained to these corporate behemoths, think about adapting Web 2.0 technologies into their business?

At the SXSWi panel “What Does Corporate America Think of 2.0?” Andrew McAfee, a scientist from MIT, delivered some valuable insight in regards to introducing corporations to 2.0 technologies. This advice is also applicable to the small business. As web designers and developers we are often in a position where we have to convince the decision makers to adopt a new technology. Below are my notes, as well as my thoughts about this idea of bringing the enterprise up-to-date with what’s happening online.

2.0 is in a state of flux

The common denominator among anything calling itself 2.0 is this idea of transparency and constant flux that shows up in the development cycle and often carries through to the finished product. For example, the concept of social sharing has bled its way into many online tools. Small businesses are more nimble and more likely to adapt these newer technologies. Corporations, however, move much slower.

The corporate mindset is risk averse and conservative. The decision process is encumbered and results in executives being enamored with the status quo, predicating a natural preference for incumbent technologies. A great example of this is our own web-based time, task and project management software, Intervals. We developed Intervals for the small business knowing their agility would make them far more likely to drop the incumbent, and grossly overweight, Microsoft Project. And many small businesses have done just that, dropped Microsoft Project for a fresh and lighter weight alternative. Meanwhile, their larger corporate counterparts will cling to Microsoft Project for many reasons — too entrenched in historical data and overly dependent on Gantt charts, to name two.

And you can’t blame them, really. Corporations have been around longer than most small businesses and have had their share of failures with adopting over-hyped technologies in the past. As Andrew McAfee pointed out, these past negative experiences have left them skeptical and unimpressed by features and novelty. And that’s what many of these new Web 2.0 apps are, a feature. Twitter is a stream of chatty consciousness and Basecamp is an atypical to-do list. How are these tools going to help run corporations, much less, the small business?

In contrast, the agile nature of the small business will sometimes result in adopting 2.0 technologies too early. I’ve seen several small businesses hop from tool to tool, dropping the current web-based productivity app for whatever software has recently appeared on the scene and received a deluge of tweets announcing it’s revolutionary something-or-other.

The overall goal of adopting Web 2.0 technology into any size business is to find the sweet spot between the right set of features for long term productivity goals and enough stability and certainty to sway the decision makers, aka, the suits. Andrew McAfee listed some of the characteristics of these decision makers, which you will notice apply to most businesses. Decision makers, he said, are:

  • Busy, uninterested in social revolution
  • Hostile to auto-obsolescence
  • Require ROI, justification of business decisions
  • Convinced of their own uniqueness
  • Aware of new tools and new approaches
  • Aware of organizational dysfunction
  • Pragmatic, swayed by theory, evidence, narratives, peers
  • Afraid of being left behind

Talking about technology

Now that we understand how the corporate mindset walks, talks and thinks, how do we approach our clients when our web design and development projects take us in the direction of adopting new technologies? Whether it’s convincing them to communicate with your design and development team via web-based project management tools or presenting reasons why open source technologies fit their budget and requirements better than proprietary software, the way we talk to our clients should be the same.

The first rule in talking tech with your clients is to jettison the jargon. And yet this is what most designers and developers fail to do. We string together words like “solution,” “paradigm” and, my favorite, “revolutionary.” Find a common vernacular and stick to it. And don’t talk down to your clients. They will be discouraged by your condescension and less likely to like you.

Frame all of your conversations with practical applications. And even then make sure you are doing more than just show-and-tell with your clients. Andrew McAfee gave a brilliant example of how he demonstrated to his people that Google Scholar is far more efficient at finding research than MITs own library search. Had he just raved about how great Google Scholar is at digging up research, they would not have been as attentive. But he didn’t. He showed them instead and earned a captive audience as a result.

In this case, Google was the case study needed to sway the decision makers. Most clients, however, will want to see data and practical case studies that are closer to the core of their business. Google is big but the lessons we have to learn from them are not applicable to everyone. Start with more mainstream examples of how 2.0 technology will benefit your client. The more they are able to relate to the case study, the greater the chance they will be convinced.

Whenever we design and develop web sites and web-based applications for our clients we are helping them make decisions that will effect their business more in the long run than the short. While we may only work with them for a few months on their project, they must continue on for the next several years with what we’ve developed. Put your project planning in this perspective and you will be far more persuasive and successful with client projects.

Notes from the underground

Explore the links below to see what others at SXSWi had to say about this panel:

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/valentinap/ / CC BY 2.0
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