It’s E2.0 season again, triggered by the annual conference (held in Santa Clara this year), and the usual suspects have unleashed predictable arguments about which comes first, the chicken or the egg:

Andrew McAfee (“godfather” of E2.0)
Dennis Howlett (renowned skeptic, glorious curmudgeon)
Stowe Boyd (a firm believer in the social workplace)
Martijn Linssen (an entertaining guy with an enterprise/integration background)
Bob Warfield (on the Smoothspan blog)
Mark Fidelman (new to me, but a tidy wrap-up)
Larry Hawes (“who cares?” … somebody does, clearly!)

I’m sure there’s plenty more out there; it seems to be an argument with legs. Read them all, and the comments following them – there are clearly some strongly-held opinions in play here.

Show me the money!
As befits his background, Dennis Howlett asks “where are the case studies demonstrating real business value from social business/E2.0/[insert new buzzword for it here]?”. It’s a fair call, and it shouldn’t be assumed that Dennis doesn’t believe there is value in social media generally – but he’s right that much of the “benefit” being spruiked is faith-based at the moment.  That may change over time – all new ideas take a little time to get traction, and early adopters have to be faith-based almost by definition … but when you have global professional firms whose raison d’etre is predicated on the existence of and necessity for “social business” I think we’re past the early adopter phase. If we’re not seeing clear examples of ROI yet, then I think we’re right to question the value. If they exist, then let’s get them on the table now.

Chicken or egg?
McAfee argues that the key difference between “social business” and “Enterprise 2.0″ is that E2.0 has the tools to make good the promises of people-focused management we’ve been preaching since the days of Elton Mayo, making “social business” something that is old, tired and something of a failure. Some of the links above concentrate on which sequence of people, process or technology is most appropriate, whether the sequence matters at all, or whether it’s a situational decision (which is probably where I sit – “it depends”!). There is also some semantic squabbling over the difference between social business and E2.0, from McAfee’s “sharp distinction” to Hawe’s “who cares?”. In the end, I think both descriptions have been hijacked by marketers who have found a new problem their technology could fix, so the names are rapidly becoming meaningless in conceptual terms, and useless as metaphors to advance our understanding of their purported business value.

The cultural revolution
Let’s put it out there: having “Facebook for the enterprise” is not going to flick the switches of senior executives who, by necessity or desire, rule over command-and-control hierarchies. The very expression “networks subvert hierarchies” will give some organisations a hundred years of insomnia; and there are plenty of businesses where the cultural change required to embrace social business/E2.0/social media would be fatal. These are places who will embrace this “social revolution” pretty much the way dinosaurs welcomed meteorites. My view is that, with relatively few exceptions, this is pretty much what WILL happen to businesses who don’t embrace the change, but that doesn’t mean they are capable of avoiding it.

McAfee thinks it is the tools that make the difference now, given that the “social business” theme is

“a message that has been broadcast into the executive suite for fourscore years now. Sometimes it’s been delivered with great skill and clarity, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s been internalized and acted on, sometimes not. But the message has been heard so often that it’s faded into the background.”

What he says is correct – it IS an old theme that hasn’t been as widely adopted as it should … but that’s a management failure, not a tools failure. Now – there may be edge cases where a company is “social” enough that the existence of better tools will tip them into E2.0, but I suspect they’re thin on the ground. If a business is people-centric already, it will probably embrace the tools available because they improve their “social efficiency” – distance and time constraints are reduced; and knowledge, experience and wisdom are located and persisted much more easily now.

The changing nature of work
In the end, I believe that the argument about how we retro-fit social media principles into existing businesses is (while entertaining) the wrong discussion to be having: some companies “get it” and will prosper as “social businesses”, and others will successfully carry on as rigid hierarchies, still others will look up one day and find they’ve had their “meteorite moment” and joined the dinosaur in extinction.

I think the issue is more about NEW companies, and how social media allows them to remain small/agile/responsive to their customers, and to collaborate with other connected companies on larger projects while retaining a human scale. This is, paradoxically, how many of the commentators above have built their own businesses …