Distributed Computing and Enterprise 2.0

During my college years, the Internet phenomenon took off. While computer networks was a subject taught at college for many years, it’s not until the 90s that really broad applications emerged. As late as the early 90s, only large private, public & education institutions had access to the Internet. A relatively small number of actual consumers did anything with their 1200 baud MODEMs. I was a BBS sysop back in the days, but that’s another story.

Not everyone had a computer when I went to college. It was a luxury and those who had a computer spent a lot of time playing Doom. You couldn’t walk down any hall and not find at least two people playing Doom. I was playing Doom with people in my dorm. As sad as it is, I was “networking” with others in a new, innovative way beyond simple message boards. While Doom was taking off, so was another buzz. We were all being encouraged to participate in distributed computing projects to help solve difficult problems; most of these at the time were academic or “code breaking” contests, but nevertheless, idle PCs began to participate in a well orchestrated way to solve a problem larger than anyone could solve by themselves.

Distributing computing is a fascinating concept and something that large software systems take advantage of. It breaks down a problem into multiple parts that run in parallel on multiple computers. While the outcome can be absolutely mind-boggling, it takes a lot of work to architect and orchestrate a solution. Some problems, because of their very nature, can’t even be highly distributed. These intricate and complex solutions require a lot of engineering smarts. An equally competent marketing department is required to convince people to participate in an Internet distributing computing project, especially in a world when everyone is worried about security.

So what does distributed computing have to do with Enterprise 2.0? I get to that point a little later.

I’ve been meaning to write an article on ROI & Enterprise 2.0. There are already a couple good ones out there, so instead of rehashing many of the arguments and points already made, I wanted to offer another perspective.

Unstructured & New World of Work: ROI to the Individual

It’s accepted that technology can really help foster innovation and help connect people with similar interests & ideas. It can uncover new ideas, new problems & new solutions. And there’s a certain reality that the workplace is evolving. Almost every desk worker has a computer, has email, uses Instant Messaging and has access to a productivity suite like Office. More and more information workers are on Facebook, many read blogs and a few even have their own blogs. Their personal & professional lives are blended; they are thinking of replacing their Win Mobile/Blackberry phones with an iPhone and wish they had more time to upload and share pictures. That’s the reality. And as more and more people enter the work force, the more ubiquitous this is becoming.

While not all productivity tools are called Enterprise 2.0, every company uses tools that help people connect with others resulting in greater organizational agility and productivity. Email, as archaic as it may sound, has transformed the workplace over the last decade and continues to be the number one way people communicate with their colleagues. In the last few years, more synchronous forms of technologies like instant messaging have been popular.  Even more recently, Unified Communications is a category that every company is looking at; especially in this economy. There’s no argument that these set of technologies have a measurable ROI. There’s also no argument that information workers use these technologies as part of their daily jobs; that they are tools they use to communicate, interact and get something done.

Enterprise 2.0 is popularly associated with some of the newer age tools that promise to even further empower employees to connect with each other and be more productive. Common examples are wikis, blogs, search, tagging – all of which have become super popular on the Internet. And while these technologies have become popular on the Internet for individuals to connect and share information with their friends, a commonly asked question is how these tools can be leveraged in the Enterprise to provide real return on investment; really impact the bottom line?

Loosely Structured & Orchestrated: ROI to Groups and Organizations

As individuals begin to become more “productive” and are able to connect with individuals more easily, how can this be transformed into more measurable organizational/group productivity? Don’t you need a certain critical mass of users to really take advantage of these types of technologies? There are far more consumers in the world than producers. If you take a look at the Wikipedia editing frequency, a very small fraction of users actually make any edits to Wikipedia - but all of us consume Wikipedia data. 

This is where some of the distributed computing background is relevant. If you take a look at Enterprise 2.0 as an opportunity to really take advantage of the people’s knowledge/ideas in a group or organization, you can really build something great. But like I said before, it doesn’t happen automatically, you need some kind of structure/orchestration to get unstructured IP; you need some guidance before it becomes part of the organizational DNA/culture.

In this case, Enterprise 2.0 tools can be used to solve a known problem. This may counter some people’s definition who think Enterprise 2.0 is about grassroots innovation and connections. However, teaching people to use the tools to proactively harness people’s knowledge can result in real measurable results. You can either attempt to encourage people to participate in a process/project voluntarily (for example, think of something like an Idea Exchange solution that is composed of wikis and tagging) or you can use the tools to be a process for real work – for example, a wiki based solution can be used in a large organization in the vision/planning process of a product or project. Instead of a few people checking out and checking in a document, dozens or hundreds of people can participate in a more transparent, participatory process. In some ways, you’re distributing the “computing” to each employee and magnifying impact; each person can participate to create a really rich knowledge base that is unstructured in the way that people can participate and edit, but the end result is very structured. Another personal favorite example I like to use is a FAQ or RFI solution. While it takes work to architect a solution and figure out exactly how to get people to participate, the outcome is measurable.

I realize that buzz phrases like Web 2.0, Social Computing & Enterprise 2.0, have a certain association with grassroots innovation and sound really new age, but with some planning, some of the same technologies can be leveraged to build enterprise solutions that get people involved and solve a big problem. Let’s face it: Doom was cool, fun and exciting and distributed computing was geeky – but they were fundamentally taking advantage of the same underlying infrastructure. And while a real solution that solves a real problem doesn’t attract the same attention that Facebook gets, just give it a cool name, post a video about it on YouTube, create a Facebook group and tweet about it. :-)