Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston: Metapost

February 5, 2009
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I attended the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston last week, and it was time well spent. I was fortunate enough to be there all week, and thus had plenty of time to both take in the scheduled programme, as well as the various out-of-band, Twitter, back-channel, hallway / lobby / lunch / dinner / drinks conversations. At one point, somebody more clever than I remarked that the latter was the “metaconference”, and I really like that metaphor. Hence the title of this post. I intend to talk here, as concisely as possible, about the metaconference, and of the people I met and the things I learned. I’ll then do separate posts to talk about specific sessions or topics.

Conference Structure

The conference was set up so that you didn’t pre-register for the sessions you wanted to attend — instead, you made up your agenda as you went along. I’m not entirely sure if that was a deliberate act on the part of the conference planners, or simply a consequence of circumstances, but it worked surprisingly well. I was sceptical of this, at first, and there was the obvious downside: they never knew, ahead of time, how many people were going to show up for a given session. That presents log

I attended the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston last week, and it was time well spent. I was fortunate enough to be there all week, and thus had plenty of time to both take in the scheduled programme, as well as the various out-of-band, Twitter, back-channel, hallway / lobby / lunch / dinner / drinks conversations. At one point, somebody more clever than I remarked that the latter was the “metaconference”, and I really like that metaphor. Hence the title of this post. I intend to talk here, as concisely as possible, about the metaconference, and of the people I met and the things I learned. I’ll then do separate posts to talk about specific sessions or topics.

Conference Structure

The conference was set up so that you didn’t pre-register for the sessions you wanted to attend — instead, you made up your agenda as you went along. I’m not entirely sure if that was a deliberate act on the part of the conference planners, or simply a consequence of circumstances, but it worked surprisingly well. I was sceptical of this, at first, and there was the obvious downside: they never knew, ahead of time, how many people were going to show up for a given session. That presents logistical challenges, and they were visible — the coping mechanism was “overflow” rooms, equipped with video screens, which was better than being excluded completely, but not particularly satisfying, particularly in sessions where questions were / could be asked, etc. Despite the obvious drawbacks, the system worked, overall. And it was conducive to the kind of ad-hoc decision making that I prefer, myself, so I actually found it quite pleasant.

Infrastructure

The wireless LAN was catastrophically bad, and it was a constant distraction and irritation. Everybody complained about it, both the organisers and the hotel were certainly aware of it (some, but not all of us, got an amusing letter from the hotel’s GM, along with some fruit and a bottle of water, as kind of consolation prize), but there seemed to be nothing to be done about it — it was bad at the start, and never got to a “good” level, despite obviously fevered efforts. Shrug. Bad publicity for the hotel, and for Sprint, the ISP. Opportunity lost.

Themes

I found two main themes present at the conference: social software and cloud computing. The former was the prevalent one, which is fair enough, given Andrew McAfee’s definition of the term “Enterprise 2.0”. Cloud computing got “sold”, in a comment at one of the sessions, as an “enabler” for social software — I believe it was Google who said that. Which is also fair enough, if limiting. But I’ve talked about the intersections of these themes before, and I won’t dwell on it here.

Apart from those explicit themes (some of which I hope to address in some detail in later posts), there were also two implicit themes (or perhaps memes) that struck me. First, there was a lack of consensus about what the term “enterprise” actually denotes. At the Town Hall meeting at the conclusion of the conference, one of the audience members made a comment that she was frustrated by the focus on “large” enterprises, and would like to also see more information tailored to small and medium businesses next year. That got a chuckle (and a comment) from me, because a group of CSC attendees and myself had been grumbling amongst ourselves, just prior, about the apparent focus — from our mega-enterprisey perspective — on piddling little mid-range contexts and examples. We found everything too small. Perhaps the fuzziness of the term “enterprise”, that this discrepancy makes visible, is one of the reasons why people argue so much about what McAfee’s idea really means.

Another recurring meme was the sheer level of frustration (“hatred” comes to mind, but is too strong a word) with IT. Over and over again, I heard comments like “It’s not about IT”, “We don’t want to talk about IT”, “This is about getting around (the limitations of) IT”, and so forth. On one level, this is perfectly sensible: you don’t start looking for a solution to a business problem by talking about tools: that’s a guaranteed path to failure. You start, ideally, by understanding the business problem, in a business context. But the emotions I encountered went far beyond that sensible approach — these people are angry at IT, and there was more than just a desire to sidestep an annoying hindrance here. Call me paranoid if you like, but I heard an undercurrent of desire for retribution in many people’s comments: a desire to punish IT for making their lives miserable. The problem I see with that (and I do see one) is that, if satisfied, this urge will lead to something much more drastic than throwing the baby out with the bathwater — this is “my foot hurts, so I’ll just have it off, then” territory. Sam Lawrence wrote a great post on his impressions of the conference, and some of what he says there fits in here. My message to frustrated, angry people would be something like: well, yes. We (the IT people) are frustrated and angry too, but we’re all complicit in this mess. You (the business people) make the (financial) rules that constrain our relationships — you decide that we’re a cost centre, for example, which then compels us to behave in ways that annoy you. You annoy the hell out of us, too, by putting us in all kinds of behavioural strait jackets like that, and then demanding that we improve “time to market”. Lol. We all want to make things better, but the optimal solution is obviously going to be one where we’re all in it together. We’re symbiotes, and we can’t live without each other anymore, if we ever could. The funniest thing, in this regard, to happen at the conference, was to listen to someone make such a “I hate IT! The hell with them — this stuff is so important because it frees us from them!” comment, and then, moments later, hear them cursing under their breath because the hotel WiFi had failed again. Irony of a fine vintage. IT wants to collaborate too — with each other, and with you. We have to see this stuff as an opportunity to improve that vector of the problem as well, or we’re unlikely to achieve any lasting, meaningful results.

A third theme, (and one that will probably be of little interest to most people other than my bosses at work) was that CSC was well represented. Apart from myself, there were about a half dozen really smart people there, like chuckstar76, ccrowson, pgrove, cflanagan, and chessasilva. It was interesting to note that many of the other “usual suspects” were not as well represented, or certainly not as noisy. Only IBM, of those usual suspects — and, as to be expected — made a more obvious showing, in my mind. CSC is not the first company you think about when you think about “Enterprise 2.0”, but there’s a serious group of people within the company making a real effort to change that, and I think, quietly, the first signs of that were evident at this conference.

People

Far and away, the single most valuable thing about this conference — meeting people. The goal of most (if not all) conferences, I suppose, is to bring a group of people together who want to meet, and who will have positive, interesting interactions. In my experience, the conference that achieves that goal, however, is rare. This one did, and not only that: it excelled. For some people — the A-listers who had all met at numerous conferences before — there was less of this value, and I heard some of them grumbling about it. But for a latecomer like myself, it was fantastic, and I am deeply indebted to the brilliant, gracious people who took the time to talk to me, and made the conference so rewarding for me. In particular, I had the rather surreal experience of being dragged along to dinner on two occasions where I found myself sitting amongst some of the brightest people I have ever met, and I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to thank my hosts again. So, thanks, Steve Mann, for being so gracious to the stranger who crashed Mayhem. And a huge shout out, and sincere genuflection to Maggie Fox, who not only was gracious enough to allow me to crash her dinner, but picked up the tab. The overwhelming theme of the social interactions for me at this conference can be summed up as “Wow, these people are all much smarter than I am, and they’re nicer people too.”

It’s exceedingly difficult to pick out the highlights of the “people I met” theme, therefore. Trib did a great write-up on this, and there are only a few names I’d add to his nearly perfect list:

robincarey, ahoibrause, nicoleterese, ccrowson, kpearson, and sagenet

… all come to mind. A recurring theme / question that was in the air was something like “Are the relationships formed via social networking software (SNS) ‘real’? Do they have the same depth and validity as F2F relationships in meatspace?” And I think, despite the fact that everyone agrees that meatspace is still better (as Trib put it, they are at 11 on a Spinal Tap scale of 1-10), the answer was nevertheless a resounding “yes”. Certainly, my personal experiences confirm that, and meeting people like Trib or Luis Suarez were the proof. I wouldn’t hesitate to call them both “friends”, post-conference, and the remarkable thing about that was that I hadn’t met either of them, in meatspace, prior. But as Trib pointed out, the virtual space created by SNS that we all inhabit created a frame of reference, an existing context, that allowed us to bridge the awkwardness of “getting to know each other”, and dive right into the (manifold and profound) things we have in common. It was an exciting, and fascinating experience, and my life is richer for it.

Having said that, lurking within this theme are both my best story confirming that thesis, and my greatest regret (within the context of the conference). One of the reasons I wanted to go to the conference at all was to meet Susan Scrupski. Susan and I connected on Twitter (and elsewhere) about a year ago, and have been conversing ever since. We’re of an age, and have some cultural things in common that derive from that coincidence, as well as the coincidence that we grew up in roughly the same geography — we share some taste in music, a love of the Jersey shore, and stuff like that. On the first day of the conference, we were drawn to different sessions, but I was watching her tweets, and so knew roughly where she was, and even what she was wearing (a lime green jacket). I already knew, more or less, what she looked like, from Flickr and elsewhere, and the converse was true as well. All of that context added up to the following scene, therefore: I was able to walk up behind Susan, where she was sitting waiting for the “Evening in the Clouds” session to begin, tap her on the shoulder, and say, “George Thorogood rocks!”. She laughed, and knew instantly who I was. We greeted each other like the friends that (I hope!) we are, and immediately started chatting.

That was a profoundly fascinating experience. Somebody later remarked to me, “Well, pen pals, in an earlier age, might well have had the same sort of experience”, and I suppose that’s true. But a recurring theme in discussions about technologies like the Net or SNS are that they are amplifiers, enablers. They lower the barriers to participation, and so make experiences like mine, with Susan, more common — more likely. That’s a difference worth remarking on, and thinking about.

But wrapped up in my meeting Susan is also my greatest — indeed, only — regret of the conference. There were so many people to meet, so many shiny things clamouring for my attention, and I didn’t make enough time to talk to Susan. I am profoundly, deeply annoyed at myself, that I didn’t make more of this rare opportunity to get to know her better in carbon. Susan was mega busy, and there was always a crowd of moths flittering around her light, to be battled through if you wanted to talk to her. But despite that, I don’t have anyone to blame but myself — on a number of occasions, I had a clear opportunity to turn my back on the bright shinys, and fight through the moths, but I didn’t. In part, there’s actually a clear casual relationship to be analysed here: I suspect that I felt less driven to spend time with Susan precisely because I felt I knew her well already, and thus was more drawn to spending time with people who were more entirely new to me. The detached, scientific observer in me raises a Spock eyebrow at that possibility, and thinks “Fascinating! More impact of social software stuff to think about!” But the human part of me is deeply frustrated that I missed a chance to spend more time with one of the most intelligent, interesting people I know. It wasn’t until I realised that Susan was already at Logan Airport, on her way home (via a tweet, of course), that it became clear to me that I had blown it. Mea maxima culpa, Susan. I hope I get the chance to (over)compensate (shamelessly) soon.