Monday, November 13, 2006

The Empty Quarter

Andrew McAfee discusses who in organizations is adopting social networking software or as he calls it “Enterprise 2.0” tools, Evangelizing in the Empty Quarter.

The ‘empty quarter‘ of non-adopters is the upper right-hand section of this graph. These are the folk who are relatively unlikely to pick up new tools and run with them.

But so what? It‘s unrealistic to expect 100% adoption of any new technology that‘s not mandatory, so there‘s always going to be an empty quarter (I have it on good authority, for example, that there are still faculty at Harvard who have their emails printed out and brought to them.). Given this, why should a business leader care about Enterprise 2.0‘s empty quarter? After all, it‘s only going to shrink over time as newbies continue to enter the workforce. In addition, some of the people in the empty quarter will probably benefit from the new technologies, even if they don‘t use them. They might read another employees blog and learn something, for example, even if they don‘t blog themselves. So why not just leave the inhabitants of the empty quarter be?

I think Andrew does an excellent job of describing the problem of getting people to adopt new technologies. It is no small challenge, and the “empty quarter” metaphor describes the issue perfectly. But, as a person who has actually been to the Empty Quarter I can tell you that it is like no place anyone in western culture has ever experienced (unless they‘ve actually been there). This is why I struggle a bit with the somewhat naive solutions he suggests.

The great majority of companies today are far from this scenario because their empty quarters are so large. Are there effective ways to evangelize within it and convert people to Enterprise 2.0 tool use? One strategy is to keep working on the tools themselves, making them more obvious and easy to use. This is certainly a good idea, but I don‘t have a lot of confidence that it‘ll bear a lot of fruit in the empty quarter. Old habits die hard, and the 9X problem of email is particularly acute among non-techies.

A more promising strategy, I believe, lies at the intersection of coaching, leading by example, and policy-setting. Of these, policy setting is the least obvious and most risky, what would a pro-blogging policy look like, and what would keep it from backfiring? I‘ve heard a couple clever examples. A Google employee at a conference I attended, for example, said that employees there sent a short (five line) email to a specific address each week, telling what they‘d done. These became part of a searchable archive.

Right, that‘ll work. Nice try Andrew, but you‘re dreaming here. One should never try to fix, trick, or otherwise impose solutions on a space like the empty quarter. You can only work on the peripheries, because once you venture into the desert you are in a completely different world. I suggest a better strategy is one that has been the model for diffusing innovation for the ages. You find those key actors that are comfortable living in both worlds, and focus your efforts there. You can‘t focus your attention on the whole. You must find those innovators that reside in San‘a, but that occasionally like to visit with the good people in Mar‘ib.

When I was in the empty quarter we stopped at a little Bedouin village for several hours to wait for some others who were traveling with us. (That‘s a long story for another day.) As we pulled into the village my driver says, “Stay close to me Dr. Gamble these are very dangerous people.” If you are the person venturing into the empty quarter you must do so with great care. It isn‘t that the non-adopters are indifferent, they can be dangerous. They won‘t ignore you, they will actively work to undermine your efforts. You are messing with their space and changing the organizational balance of power. Never underestimate the ferociousness that the Bedouins will resist your efforts to modernize them.


Unknown said...

So.. it is the evil outside the social group that is to be feared.. ok.. I agree in part. But I fear the focus is wrong. If these tools are useful to business and organizational leaders.. they adopt them. If they are deemed to have a low return on investment (time, energy and money), they do not adopt. Too much focus is being placed on are they techies or GenXers.. In truth, this in normal with all innovations.. there is always an early adopter group that is typically not typical. Thus, their adoption does not show the way.. if it works for them.. doesn't necessary mean it works for the others..

Want an example.. PC Write was a burden to learn.. but those of us interested in technology and who saw the benefits adopted it. But word processing would never have become mainstream if we were forced to use PC Write.. the cost of training, supporting, etc... it was just overwhelming. And while wiki is pretty easy.. I would put it in the same category. There are all these cool things you can do with it, but you have to know the tricks. The mainstream doesn't want to have to learn those tricks.. they want a button for it.. they wan it to lead the out of the desert. The focus should be refining the technology.. making it better.. more focused around the needs on the non-techie..

One last point.. The danger is in thinking.. it works for me.. so it should work for them. Do any of us really want to go back to FTPing files? Sure it was great back then.. but we wanted more.. I think that is the case with Social Networking software.. it is just a baby... I am looking for a toddler..

Unknown said...

Excuse the typos in the earlier post.. any intelligent person can spell a word more than one way..

Kevin Gamble said...

The issue isn't the difficulty of using the technology. That wasn't the point of the post. New technologies always have rough edges. My point is that the organizational culture tries to stop the early adopters from using the tool. There is active resistance to change. It may manifest itself by people saying, "It's too hard", but in reality the issue is far more complex.

If ease of use was just the issue what you would observe is indifference. That is not what we are seeing occuring with these tools. It's a much more profound form of resistance.

Kevin Gamble said...

BTW, this was an old post that got elevated when I was fooling around with tagging it.

I apologize for spamming the feed with the old stuff.