Evolution, not imposition: Don’t dictate how staff use Web 2.0

Lighten up, and let them have fun! The next-generation internet gives the World Wide Web a social life – but how do businesses successfully unleash the potential within Web 2.0 for employees to interact?

Web 2.0 has spawned household names such as Wikipedia, Facebook and MySpace, and offers companies a powerful tool fit for the new era of social networking. In particular, the technology maximizes the possibilities for staff to exchange and shape ideas online through networking sites, blogs, wikis and video-sharing. But do managers try to control how staff use the system, or give employees the creative freedom to shape it themselves?

A study by Steven De Hertogh, Stijn Viaene and Guido Dedene suggests the need for an evolving, bottom-up approach to stimulate the decentralized and democratic patterns of use that emerge spontaneously. “Governing Web 2.0: Grounding Principles to Get the Most out of Enterprise 2.0 Investments” sets out guidelines to help business get the most from the freedom, openness and sociality at the heart of this technology.

CREATIVITY: Potent Potential

McAfee coined the term enterprise 2.0 to describe how companies invest in wikis and social networking software to boost collaboration among staff. Key reasons for investing in Web 2.0 are collective creativity – creative thinking embracing the input of all employees that thrives on the co-operative exchange of ideas – and open innovation, which welcomes insights from those outside a company including customers.

Ensuring people understand what Web 2.0 technology can do is essential to its successful use, and its most promising features allow users to: 

  • combine applications and data;
  • design flexibly, update swiftly, and adapt skilfully; 
  • manage content collaboratively without imposing a rigid structure on it; 
  • offer a personalized experience; 
  • garner valuable collective intelligence.

POWER: Sharing is Caring

However, technology alone will not guarantee success for an investment in Web 2.0, and managers must also consider: empowerment (who decides on the way the technology is used); processes (how it is used fruitfully); collaboration (how teams are formed and interact); and people and culture (how to make people aware of the technology’s many benefits).

De Hertogh, Viaene and Dedene identified high-profile examples of these issues:


In 2008 travel agency Connections launched a social networking system so that staff could share travel experiences in the belief that this would sharpen their advice to customers. Managers let governance emerge from use of the system itself – empowering employees to co-design it and take up roles and responsibilities as they saw fit.


In 2004 managers at the high-tech manufacturer Bekaert promoted the use of its Innovation Portal to steer creativity. Employees were shown how peer-review functions could enable them to review, vote and collaborate on ideas. In turn, the managers could ask the system to rank these based on page views, votes and tags etc. By making past trails of ideas, suggestions and projects easily retrievable through search capabilities, the employees were encouraged to learn from past mistakes and revive valuable older ideas.


In 2008 GDF-Suez Group’s technical competence and research centre for electricity, Laborelec, began piloting Web 2.0 tools to enhance knowledge-sharing and encourage common practices. When asked later about the lessons learned, participants highlighted the possibilities for developing autonomously without external control. There were ground rules governing the use of Web 2.0 applications, but these were established collaboratively and constantly challenged by emergent trends and practices.

People and Culture

Geographical information provider Tele Atlas wanted to replace an open-source wiki system, mostly being used by a small group of engineers, with a more secure, enterprise-wide platform. Managers decided they did not want to restrict employees’ access to the old system and risk goodwill. They knew that selling the user-friendliness of the commercial Web 2.0 system would have to be done by word-of-mouth, and so kept the pioneers of the old system close when designing it. The engineers turned out to be the new system’s strongest champions – and it was being used extensively within 18 months.

FREEDOM: Rules of Engagement

Managing an information system demands a balance between staying loyal to an enterprise’s identity while enabling users to interact with the technology and each other in ways that are most beneficial to the organization. As Web 2.0 is inherently social and open, this implies the need for a degree of freedom among users, and De Hertogh, Viaene and Dedene set out guidelines to favour this:

  • Empowerment:
    Empower staff to discover the good uses of the technology, rather than dictating what is bad. Users need freedom, even power, to unleash its value. They need to monitor whether they are getting from it what they want, rather than whether it is being abused. As use of the system evolves organically, rules governing it may have to adapt – but employees will still benefit from guidance.
  • Processes:
    Employees and managers can use Web 2.0 technologies to experiment and deviate from past practice by using social networking to solve issues together. They need to be willing, able – and allowed – to shape processes through wikis, tag clouds or search capabilities.
  • Collaboration:
    An organization will only get what it wants from Web 2.0 if staff work together freely. Ditch hierarchical ideas about teamwork and nurture knowledge-sharing and collaboration. Avoid relying on elite teams and embrace all contributions as potentially useful. Fostering self-government and collaboration of this kind is tough and managers may be tempted to restrict access – but this can be counterproductive.
  • People and culture:
    Nurture participation by convincing potential users why it is valuable to co-operate rather than forcing them to work your way like “big brother”. Managers need to lure people on to the platform and ensure a feelgood factor. Invite everyone to join voluntarily, explain what Web 2.0 can do for them, and give them an incentive for taking part. Those naturally inclined to protect their ideas or nervous of collective judgment need to understand that the aim is knowledge enrichment. Why not reward users for great ideas and even let them have fun through games programs?
Related article

De Hertogh S. Viaene S. Dedene G. 2011. Governing Web 2.0. Communications of the ACM. 54 (3) : 124 - 130.

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