About enterprise 2.0 and ERPs

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I’ll soon take a part in a webTV discussion which theme is “Is enterprise 2.0 the antithesis of ERP” organized by the great Techtoc.tv team (ok…that’s all in french). The preparatory discussions are rather heated, what’s promising for the debate. Meanwhile, I’d like to share some thoughts about the issue we’ll debate.

ERP ? That’s to say ?

First, we need to define what we mean when we say “ERP”. At first sight, it looks simple, a look at the definition on wikipedia and that’s done. Then some some wonder if we should include RH systems in the discussions : some say that’s radically different, some say that’s the same, some say the underlying logic is the same.

But this is a tool-oriented discussion. When talking about ERPs in the enterprise 2.0 context, people often think beyond the tools, they think of what the tools embody: structure and processes. Even untooled, a process is a process and can be defined by its rigidity.

Beyond the strict definition, depending on people and context, ERP symbolizes many different things in the collective mind. In my opinion, saying “that’s that” or “that’s not that” is pointless. What matters is not the word but the feeling, what people think about when hearing or saying the E. word. This feeling, either right or wrong, exists and has to be taken into account into any changeme management approach.

Where does the discussion comes from ?

It has many sources.

First, one is already implemented, the other is emerging. Anything that comes in a crowded place has to find its own place, would it be in replacement or as a complement to what was there first.

Then, because they symbolize two opposite approaches : automation and, as some say, enslaving or even denying people for the one, liberating the human potential and more autonomy for the other.

Last because it’s so hard to agree on a “positive” definition of enterprise 2.0 that it’s easier to build a “negative” one, to define it according to what it’s not. In this context, ERP and the concepts that come with are the absolute reference. When things are built the one against the other, antagonism and rejection feelings comes in the discussion, either justified or not.

What is it about ?

According to the elements I gathered and the many discussions I had, it’s about three things

• Philosophy :is it possibl for a business that believes in full automation, that wants everything to be perfectly repeatable to have, at the same time, the needed mindset to implement something that is the contrary ?

• Organization : is it possible on an organizational and management point of view, to make both logics co-exist ?

• Technical : must there be integration, exchanges, communication between the tools that support both approaches ? And how ?

What’s the impact of the discussion ?

At first sight it’s only an experts discussion that has no interest for real people, something that has nothing to do with businesses concerns. The “yes…but what to do with my ERP” question is not one of those that emerge when a business think about what to do in the “soft collaboration” field.

On the other hand, that’s not neutral once the reflection goes further. Not on the ERP angle but on the articulation angle. That’s about articulating structured and repeatable activities with unpredictable and adhoc ones. Whatever the conclusion of the philosophical debate is, reality forces us to admit that both have to co-exist because both are needed, sometimes jointly, sometimes separately, some people having to deal with both.

Data coming from the one may also be a matter of discussions and conversations in the other.

Beyond any ideological “a priori” that may make people idealize the one and demonize the other, organizations must be aware of not making the wrong battle. Coming to the conclusion that the one precludes the other is not an acceptable answer because it’s a subjective judgement that, even if it makes it easier for some to deliver their message and beliefs, does not bring any solution to the actual concern : how to articulate both to get the most from the organization ressources and competences in complex and always varying contexts.

There are things that are endlessly repeatable and that have to be turned into strict processes that will be run by dedicated systems. It’s essential to save time and ressources where people have nothing to add to the machine and where they are often the cause of mistakes, errors and bad quality. But there’s also all the rest, where a new logic is needed. And, regardless to any personal belief, the enterprise is at the confluence of both.

On the other hand, some limiys have to be taken into account : as not everything can be translated into processes, not everything can be done in a free an informal way. What led (and is still leading) to failure is not bad logics or tools, it the fact to make them support activities that were not theirs.

Food for though

On the complementary nature, I’d say that

– among all the things from which conversations start, there is no reason to think that no one will come from an ERP (or any expert system).

– that if there were no tools able to run processes, we would spend so many time processing datas with such a large margin of error so we would have to time to deal with things that no machine can do instead of us : innovate and solve problems.

Moreover, one of the biggest success in the field of enterprise social software, is GE’s SupportCentral that’s neither people-centric, document-centric nor process-centric but reconciliates the three ?

Let’s remember that if the ERP driven organization reached its limits, enterprise 2.0 is also incomplete and can’t handle everything in an organization. But the Enterprise (without adjective or version) has to conciliate both. That’s not a matter for debate but an imperative.