In my first post on Nutzungsoffenheit I have introduced and discussed the peculiar nature of collaborative platforms, especially E2.0 technologies, as open, and use-indifferent platforms. Such nutzungsoffenheit allows (but also requires) users to come up with their own interpretations and usage practices on these platforms.
At the E2.0 summit in Frankfurt the German language claim “Vorsprung durch Nutzungsoffenheit” was coined (translate: Advantage by openness). This claim refers to the potentials such openness yields, since these platforms can be adopted into a variety of use contexts, in the most diverse ways, and leading to all sorts of advantages in communication, awareness creation, knowledge sharing, expert localisation etc.
But Nutzungsoffenheit is no silver bullet; no advantage comes without cost or challenges. So, what does it all mean? What are the implications for the various stakeholders involved?
The user: “C’mon give it a try!”
Nutzungsoffenheit means that users enjoy a lot of freedom on E2.0 platforms to create their own usage practices. Our research for example shows that Enterprise Microblogging turns out to be vastly different in different organisations (publication forthcoming). However, such an adoption process does not happen overnight. Quite the opposite; users need to experiment with the new platforms to get to understand the potentials these E2.0 technologies might yield for their specific workplaces. This takes time and effort, which people quite often simply don’t have. This is especially problematic, if the new platform is presented as yet another platform, standing side by side with the users’ normal work environment (see my post on co-evolution). So, while Nutzungsoffenheit means flexibility, it also means the need to experiment and to ‘figure it out’. To some users (in some workplaces) E2.0 might come as a revelation, instantly providing them with a means to enhance their work practices, while for others it presents a challenge or even threat.
The evangelist: “Where is your business case?”
We all know the ongoing discussion about how to measure the return on investment of E2.0 initiatives. “Where is your business case?” is one of the standard questions faced by E2.0 promoters. Well, here is the catch: Nutzungsoffenheit implies that it is hard to know (or near to impossible in certain terms) to predict what exactly is going to happen after a new E2.0 platform has been introduced. What will the potentials be? Knowledge sharing, information management, communication etc.? Hard to know… But if this is hard to know, how are you going to do your business case (meaning counting the virtual beans of what users will supposedly achieve and turn that into ‘hard figures’)?
While calculating a business case for any IT innovation is hard, it is particularly hard for those that are nutzungsoffen! Benefits (in dollars) stem from what will be achieved by the users (time saved, knowledge gained etc.). Hard to calculate if you don’t know what’s supposed to happen! This is vastly different to other technologies, such as ERP systems or Workflow management. With these technologies, the ways of using are built into the system (that’s the whole point!). This makes the systems quite inflexible from a user point of view, but it makes it easy to count the virtual beans: Take what is supposed to happen, compare it with the status quo and off you go… (Of course, we all know that these benefits are unlikely to ever materialise, but hey, that’s because the users did reject the technology, which is no one’s fault but the users’!). It is obvious that it is much easier to get such a project off the ground, as one can demonstrate what’s supposed to happen.
The decision maker: “What’s going to happen?”
Well, the above shows that it is hard to tell what is going to happen. However, that argument also works in favour of any E2.0 project. Here is why: Many decision makers are still concerned (read: worried) about importing into the corporation the typical social media behaviour witnessed on the Internet. Having read daily about the vast procrastination going on inside Facebook and Twitter, decision makers are often not particularly keen on implementing such technologies inside the firewall. Now, this is where Nutzungsoffenheit strikes: Our research (and many E2.0 use cases online) shows that people will use the technologies to whatever end they deem fit, and the ends inside a corporation are vastly different to those in the personal space. So E2.0 will turn into vastly different means to these ends when put to use behind the firewall (just exactly how is hard to tell). Our ongoing research in this field shows that fears to important procrastination behaviour are largely unjustified! (e.g. see Riemer et al. 2010).
In summary, E2.0 presents a range of opportunities to give users a platform to improve their interactions in manifold ways. Exactly how is hard to predict due to Nutzungsoffenheit.
Infrastructuring: Clearing a space rather than signposting a way
Implementing E2.0 can best be referred to as infrastructing (a term coined in this context by Stefan Klein). By implementing E2.0 platforms the organisation provides a new infrastructure, not a tool (which implies a specific use purpose). Metaphorically, this is like clearing a space for the users to build on and populate, rather than fencing off a pathway with clear signage to show them the way.
Of course, such infrastructing is based on the assumption that the users will know best how to perform their own work; it is about empowerment and bottom up emergence (as has been discussed so many times after Andrew McAfee introduced the concept). And about trust in the abilities and motivation of an organisations’ people.
Last but not least however, one should not expect such bottom-up emergence to be anything like a revolution in that it will turn upside down the organisational hierarchy (as has been suggested many times). Another or our forthcoming articles suggests that users will, while creating innovative, emergent work practices, at the same time happily reproduce the existing organisational hierarchy. Watch this space for a post on this topic!
Riemer K, Richter A and Seltsikas P 2010 ‘Enterprise Microblogging: Procrastination or productive use?’, Proceedings of the 16th Americas Conference on Information Systems – “Sustainable IT Collaboration Around the Globe”, Lima, Peru, 15th August 2010 (read on Scribd).