The recent Enterprise 2.0 summit in Frankfurt has yielded an interesting discussion on the openness of E2.0 technologies, captured in the German term Nutzungsoffenheit. But what exactly does this rather odd term mean and what are the implications for the various E2.0 stakeholders?
I have researched collaborative technologies for quite some time and explored Nutzungsoffenheit in various research studies. With this blog entry and another forthcoming one, I want to share some of my insights.
What exactly is Nutzungsoffenheit?
Software is typically described as bundles of features and technical characteristics. In the case of E2.0 however this doesn’t get us very far! We simply cannot understand these platforms and their use potential from this perspective. This is due to their particular character, which I have described as Nutzungsoffenheit in a few of my recent publications. For example, I have argued that
“an essential characteristic of eCollaboration technologies is a form of openness that can best be expressed in German language as Nutzungsoffenheit, whereby the artifact does not lend itself to or even determines a particular form of usage. (…) Nutzungsoffenheit means that the true nature and potential of such technologies does only manifest when people make sense of and incorporate them in their day-to-day work routines. In essence, the technology and its set of features do not precipitate its forms of usage.” (Riemer/Steinfield/Vogel 2009, p. 186)
Nutzungsoffenheit is a characteristic (not a feature!) of most collaborative platforms, but most notably of E2.0 platforms. This becomes evident when we compare E2.0 platforms with other Enterprise software. Contrary to the idea of E2.0, typical (old school) systems often deliberately aim to prescribe certain forms of usage. For example:
- The very idea of ERP is to turn of best practices and reference processes into software code, so that process execution becomes standardized. This means of course that users have to use the software in a particular way. Human agency is overridden by what the designers have built into the software.
- Workflow systems aim to prescribe a stringent flow of tasks and a set of process governance rules, which leave only a low degree of freedom for the individual user to make changes and adaptations.
- Finally, most knowledge management systems (KMS) aim to capture and structure enterprise knowledge by way of enforcing predefined classification categories. Again, such systems come with a predefined notion as to how users should behave in using the systems.
Enterprise 2.0 platforms are based on a different philosophy. They transfer a lot of power back to the user by providing a platform and leaving a lot of room for users to create different ways of usage: whatever fits their use context and work practices.
This is precisely what we call Nutzungsoffenheit!
How does Nutzungsoffenheit show itself?
Over the last five years I have explored (together with various colleagues) Nutzungsoffenheit in collaborative technologies:
1) In a 2007 paper we have shown how a seemingly simple communication tool such as Skype can enable a wide range of complex and diverse user practices in different use contexts: from a workspace awareness stream in software development, an open audio channel, a presence dashboard, to a travel companion. The paper has pointed out that collaborative technologies cannot be understood as bundles of features, but have to be perceived as technologies-in-use. Skype in these cases takes on very different roles and thus effectively is something very different in different use contexts. (Riemer/Froessler/Klein 2007)
2) In our 2010 Bled conference paper (together with @arimue) we have shown how Microblogging, by way of platform openness is interpreted in an Enterprise context very differently to its public Internet counterpart. (Riemer/Richter 2010)
3) Currently ongoing is a follow up on the above microblogging research. Our preliminary findings show significant differences in the interpretation of EMB in different organizational contexts, such as work groups, cross-project contexts or large organisations. Publications are forthcoming; I will discuss their results in this blog in the coming months.
Can we translate Nutzungsoffenheit?
In my publications I have opted to stay with the German term and to then describe what I mean by Nutzungsoffenheit. In reply to @arimue’s call for translations at the E2.0 summit, someone suggested “versatility of use” as a translation. In my view, the term points into the right direction, but does not quite have the right connotation. Nutzungsoffenheit is not just quite about meaning different things to different people. It is much more fundamental – to the extent that such technologies (e.g. E2.0 platforms) reveal and enfold their full potential only through a process of user experimentation by which practices of use emerge. Nutzungsoffenheit thus is the basis for what Andrew McAfee rightly, but rather vaguely, describes as the phenomenon of emergence.
At the same time, this means that E2.0 technologies have to be interpreted by their users to become part of the work environment. One cannot (nor should one) prescribe or expect certain forms of use when entering into an E2.0 project. Openness is key!
Read more about this in part 2, where I will reflect on implications for evangelists, decision makers and of course E2.0 users.
(You will have noticed that I did not provide an English translation for Nutzungsoffenheit. Until someone suggests something that captures the gist of what the German term means, I’ll stick with the original and an English subtext explaining what it means. Suggestions welcome!)
Riemer K and Richter A 2010 ‘Tweet Inside: Microblogging in a Corporate Context (Winner of The Bled Outstanding Paper Award)’, Proceedings of the 23rd Bled eConference 2010 – “eTrust: Implications for the Individual, Enterprises and Society”, Bled, Slovenia, 23rd June 2010. [paper as pdf]
Riemer K, Steinfield C and Vogel D 2009 ‘eCollaboration: On the nature and emergence of communication and collaboration technologies’, Electronic Markets, vol.19:1, pp. 181-88 [LINK]
Riemer K, Froessler F and Klein S 2007 ‘Real Time Communication – Modes of Use in Distributed Teams (Nominated for Best Paper Award and for Claudio Ciborra Memorial Award), 15th European Conference on Information Systems (ECIS), St.Gallen, Switzerland, 9th June 2007 [paper as pdf]