Social Software in the Enterprise: A Historic Perspective

The applications of social software to the enterprise will profoundly change our business culture and therefore it will be a substantial force for shaping what our society will look like in the future. To understand the fundamental changes that are influencing us right now, changes of which social software is one manifestation, and to try to predict where it may lead us, we should look to the past where strikingly similar forces applied to society and science lead to the most significant cultural change in Europe and arguably the world.

The end of The Dark Ages: Europe AD 1050 – 1250

Modern historians do not much like to use the term The Dark Ages for the period which we, for the purposes here, will take to mean broadly the time from the death of St Augustine in 430 to the birth of St Thomas Aquinas in 1225. These historians argue that far from being the cultural wasteland that is often implied by the slightly derogatory phrase, this period was rich in many developments, particularly architecture as demonstrated by churches and on to the magnificent cathedrals and the development of the Gothic style. They point out that the use of the term is a throwback to an outmoded form of historic studies that was obsessed with literary achievements at the exclusion of other forms of expression.

However, even the most ardent apologist for the cultural developments of western Europe will have to agree that at the infancy of the new millennium its civilization was looking back at over five hundred years without any noteworthy or lasting developments in literature, philosophy or science. The culture was stagnant. Literature and philosophy were uncritically devoted to the writings of the ancient philosophers, especially Aristotle, the Bible, and to the early Church fathers, principally St Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysus. And while society made some progress in engineering, principally structural engineering, science was if anything regressing from the experimentation and willingness to question that characterized so much of Greek philosophy back to a dogmatic orthodoxy of received wisdom.

Then, in less than two hundred years western civilization fundamentally changes. A new scholastic tradition appears, seemingly out of nowhere, attempting, ambitiously and for the first time, to reconcile Faith with Reason and Revelation with Philosophy. This change first gives us such thinkers and literary artists as St Thomas, William of Ockham, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, to be quickly followed by the Italian Renaissance and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation in Europe. It was truly a turning point, as Bertrand Russell points out in his usual direct style:

The year 1000 may be conveniently taken as marking the end of the lowest depth to which the civilization of western Europe sank. From this point the upward movement began which continued till 1914. (History of Western Philosophy, Book 2, Chapter 7)

What were the root causes of this seismic change which propelled Europe from a medieval society to a modern one in about three hundred years – less than half the duration of the Dark Ages? To answer this, we must look at three areas that saw deep changes. One area is the technology of writing, the other is concerned with the organization of knowledge, while the last relates to Man’s understanding of himself.

Advances in the technology of writing

The history of the alphabet and of writing is fascinating but largely outside the scope of this document. We do need to consider two developments that together led to the proliferation of books throughout Europe.

The first of these is the broad adoption of the Carolingian minuscule writing. This handwriting was developed from the eight century onwards growing out of a cursive writing used for business and initially adopted primarily for commercial purposes. However, during the period we consider here the script was widely adopted for all forms of handwriting.

The importance is hard to over-state. The primary advantage of the minuscule form was that is is much faster to write than the uncial scripts that dominated formal writing prior to our period. Combined with ready access to cheap labor in the form of monastic monks, this development allowed for mass-production of books on a scale that had never been seen before.

The first paper mill in Europe was opened in Spain around 1100, and paper gradually began to replace parchment as the primary medium for writing. This helped accelerate the spread of written texts: a smaller handwriting in the form of the minuscule form and thinner writing material in the form of paper combined to make books smaller. For the first time we see truly portable books that we would recognize, and we find objects such as single-volume Bibles that had hitherto been impossible to produce. Books now find their way out of the monasteries and into a wider part of the population.

As a measure of the impact of this innovation it has been estimated that, in the hundred years from 1150, the number of written accounts and legal charters in England multiplied by a factor of fifty to a hundred. Suddenly written texts, hitherto the rare and the preserve of the clergy, became widely accessible, at least to the elite. It is no coincidence that this period sees the formation of the universities, with Oxford founded around 1167 though the colleges do not appear until the thirteenth century.

However, perhaps the most significant development was the emergence of note-taking and what we might call thoughtful writing. Note taking were rare due to the practical difficulties imposed by script and writing materials, and students were relying on verbal knowledge and memory. With the introduction of the faster script and the improved availability of economical writing materials, note-taking makes a definite appearance in Europe during the period we consider.

Prior to our period the book is a record of the author’s speech or dictation and it is intended to be listened to. Monastic reading consists of listening. Hugh of St Victor writes in 1128 on the book as a vineyard, a landscape to be explored as if by a pilgrimage. However, he marks the end of an era.

After our period the book increasingly becomes a repository of the author’s thought. No longer bound to the spoken form, the presentation of the material becomes free and the narrative appears. Traditional commentaries follow their original texts rigidly but in this period Peter the Lombard creates the first commentaries that follow the thoughts and order of the author, albeit only for non-holy texts. For all commentaries, Peter introduces color codes, marginal notes and other elements that makes the page and the layout of the page an essential element in the presentation of the information. No longer can you simply read the text and expect to learn everything from it.

The book becomes a repository of knowledge rather than of wisdom.

The apparatus of the text

The ancient authors would occasionally employ chapter headings, but by the early middle ages this practice was very uncommon. The text really was Hugh’s vineyard and only accessible through reading as a whole. But in the middle of the twelfth century what we might call the apparatus of the text appears, and we find the first indexes, library inventories, and concordances, and chapter headings become common. The book becomes less of a vineyard and more like a well-organized cupboard.

By the middle of our period, the sequence of letters in the alphabet had remained substantially unchanged for some 2,700 years, and yet during that whole time nobody had thought of organizing knowledge according to the familiar ABC order. It is truly an innovation on the same scale as the introduction of the first fully phonetic script in the Greek language, perhaps around 440 BC.

It is hard for our generation, so used to the format of the encyclopedia, to imagine a time when this simple ordering of information was not available. Typically, at the beginning of the millennium, information would be organized accordingly to the chapters and verses in the Bible. Since the Bible was the guide to all life and the ultimate source of all knowledge and meaning, according to the philosophy of the time, it seemed a reasonable way to go about things. To find a point St Augustine had made, you wouldn’t normally go to his works, but instead to the chapter and verse in the Bible that contained the core idea and then look in the commentaries. Vincent of Beauvais created a compilation of knowledge that exactly followed the creation history in the Bible, so the third, fourth, and fifth days gave him the opportunity to review all that is known about minerals, plants, and animals, respectively. In total, his Speculum maius comprises 80 books and 9,885 chapters closely following the structure of the Bible. It would no sooner occur to a medieval scholar to organize things alphabetically than it would to us to index our information according to the chapters and verses of the Bible.

These new devices – the index, the library inventory, the concordance, the consistent numbering of chapter and verse (page numbers has to wait for the printing press to guarantee that the page will always start at the same word), the chapter headings and the chapter summaries, and the introductions to the texts and books – are all engineered to allow the student to search and find the text for a subject that is already in the mind. They are all expressions of the twelfth century’s newfound desire to discover, recognize, and create a new kind of order. By 1250 the book was very much like the object which we now take for granted.

The treatment of the text as knowledge rather than wisdom, the apparatus for managing the knowledge about knowledge, and the wide distribution of the knowledge are the technical innovations that enable a new scholar to emerge, a scholar that challenges the established order and who causes fundamental changes across the entire society including law, economics, architecture, and urban life, changes that are still with us and which arguably define what we mean by western civilization.

But one more discovery, arguably more profound than any other ever made and certainly core to modern western understanding of its own civilization, was required to set the train of events that would lead to the emergence of the modern world in motion.

The person as an individual

The Latin word persona means mask, and refers to the practice originated at the Greek theater where the actors wore large masks covering their faces. From around our period, the English word person takes on the meaning we associate with it today: the individual.

Before, who you were as a person was your office or function. The baker, the miller, the tax collector was who you were as a person, as is still reflected in many common Anglo-Saxon surnames. Only after our period did the individual emerge and become important, leading to the schisms of the Reformation which partly based on the role of individual salvation. Personal confession does not become common in the Christian church until the twelfth century, again showing the what we might call the discovery of the individual.

We may speculate on the causes of this change, and many scholars have and much ink has been spent on this topic. One useful speculation is on the role of the Crusades in accelerating this change.

In 1095 Pope Urban II calls for Christian men to take up arms to join the Byzantine emperor and recapture Jerusalem. On July 15, 1099, Jerusalem falls to the crusaders, but they fail to establish a lasting presence in the Holy Land, and for the next century and a half crusades are a regular occurrence. The Fifth Crusade ended in 1219 and was the last to be called directly by the Papacy, but emperors continued the expeditions until the Eight Crusade, and, importantly, the ideas and ideals of the crusades were important elements in public life and imagination at least until the suppression of the Templars 1307-1314.

The second crusade in 1148 numbered some 50,000 men. The effect of tens of thousands people in each generation, being uprooted from their families and villages and sent on these great adventures must have been profound. No longer could you be the village smith, because you were not in your village but thousands of miles away, and you were no longer forging iron but looking after the mules of the supply train. Who you were as a person could no longer be your office, and the mask you had carefully cultivated throughout your life was no longer sufficient or appropriate.

It is not appropriate to consider the Crusades simply as journeys of self-discovery for their role was much larger, their origins infinitely more complex, and their impact on western civilization much wider, but that should not blind us to the effect they had on the understanding of the individual.

Whatever the causes, the end of the Dark Ages sees the discovery of the individual. Individual philosophers start to make individual writings and attempt to discover an new order of things that is free from slavishly following the ancients. They question the role of the individual in the world, and they try to reconcile individual experiences and observations with divine revelation and tradition. This is new, and a profound change in western civilization. There is a direct line from the individual notebooks of these scholars to the American Declaration of Independence and its claims for the equality and “unalienable rights” of all men. Western democracy is founded on this idea.


In summary, then, we postulate three changes in society that led to the end of the Dark Ages and directly to the emergence of the modern world with all its computers, free trade, and democratic government.

First, was the discovery of the individual, the individual as separate from his office or function, the individual voice, and speculations on the relation of the individual to the universe.

Second, was the mass production of books and more specifically the wide access to knowledge.

Third, was the introduction of the apparatus required to manage knowledge and to make sense of this proliferation of texts.

We now turn our attention to the present time.

Some observations on business in the early 21st century

Society may have discovered the individual and made the individual and his rights a cornerstone of western civilization’s understanding of itself. However, walk into any large enterprise and ask people who they are, and the answers are like a throwback to life a thousand years ago: I am the receptionist, I am the marketing manager, I am the CEO. The management guru Charles Handy, who has no title and no fixed corporate affiliation, understands the conflict well:

Society speaks with two voices. One voice urges us to discover our “authentic self”, to be ourselves, to plan our own path through life and, whilst respecting the rights of others, to be true to yourself…. The other voice is that of the receptionist or the conference organizer. “Who do you represent?” “To whom are you affiliated?” “What organization are you from?” Recounting his problems with receptionists and switchboards, the British writer, Anthony Sampson, who works on his own from home, says, “I’m tempted to reply that I represent the human race … the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but it won’t get me through the switchboard. I have to reply that I represent no one or that ‘I’m just a friend’. I feel even more freakish at conferences where everyone else seems to represent some company, organization, or group.” (The Empty Raincoat, 1995. p. 41)

In the enterprise, the individual continues to be subsumed for the greater good of the organization. It is not just Ford’s discovery of the efficiencies of mass production, but the much earlier organization of the army into an efficient fighting machine, dating back to at least the Roman legions. You give up the individual to achieve efficiency. It is the triumph of the factory over the artisan.

The enterprise was always the vehicle for marshaling resources toward a common goal, and it is extremely efficient at this. What has changed recently is that the goal is no longer fixed. In the modern agile enterprise, disruptive innovation is the norm. The outsourcing trend in one example that has clearly shown to managers that they can not compete on solely on the cost of execution but that they must innovate aggressively to stay in business.

The preferred approach seems to be hybrid structures of a hierarchical organization overlaid with ad-hoc teams, projects, communities of practice, and similar group structures. The objective is to maintain a high degree of executional efficiency while promoting innovation. Interestingly, the army appears to move in a similar direction with a focus on smaller elite units. Modern warfare requires the same sort of agility that the enterprise is seeking.

The organization is rediscovering the individual and, crucially, the connected individual. Innovation and creativity is released through human connections, and these are connections that are much more informal, much more flexible, and often of much shorter duration, than what is offered by the employee-manager relationships of the traditional rigid hierarchical organization.

The discovery of the fragment

Supporting this new focus on the individual is what we may call the discovery of the fragment. As the business memorandum is replaced by e-mail, so the formal text is increasingly giving way to the informal note; the composition is yielding to the fragment.

This focus on the fragment is genuinely new, and the computer may be the innovation that ends our civilization’s thousand year relationship with the book and the bookish text that began at the end of the Dark Ages. The Age of the Internet may also be the Age of the Fragment.

E-mail was the first new non-verbal communications tool adopted by the enterprise to support a faster, more agile, less formal and fundamentally social interaction. With hindsight is is easy to see why it should be a run-away success. It fundamentally changed the nature of the organization, allowing it to respond and organize much faster, and supporting a much more flexible sharing of knowledge and experience. Just what industry needed at the dawn of a new era of global competition where pressures, at the time especially noted from the “Asian tigers”, forced businesses throughout the western economy to re-organize and innovate.

However, e-mail only poorly supports the collaboration patterns that are required in the agile enterprise. Fundamentally it does not scale: many employees are drowning in a tidal wave of group e-mails to the extent that productivity is measurably decreasing. E-mail is hard to search, and it does not connect people outside the immediate list of recipients and does therefore not support the creation of new social connections within the organization. Serendipity appears to be crucial to innivation, and is not supported at all by the medium. While you can create fragments in e-mails, there is no easy way to combine these fragments from various people throughout the organization to true enterprise-wide knowledge repositories.

While the individual has begun to find a voice, or at least a medium for his voice, within the enterprise through the adoption of the new technology of e-mail, it is still very hard to show lasting corporate value from this voice.

The bottleneck of verbal communication

The telephone predates e-mail as a medium for social communication and informal network creation, but its verbal nature gives it a disadvantage for the enterprise. The corporation’s emphasis on verbal information causes organizational paralysis and hinders decision making.

This is not a new insight. Henry Mintzberg, in his 1975 classic article The Manager’s Job: Folklore and Fact, describes the problem.

Let us take a look at three specific areas of concern. For the most part, managerial logjams – the dilemma of delegation, the database centralized in one brain, the problems of working with the management scientist – revolve around the verbal nature of the manager’s information. There are great dangers in centralizing the organization’s data bank in the minds of its managers. When they leave, they take their memory with them. And when their subordinates are out of convenient verbal reach of the manager, they are at an informational disadvantage.

The manager is challenged to find systematic ways to share privileged information. A regular debriefing session with key subordinates, a weekly memory dump on the dictating machine, maintaining a diary for limited circulation, or other similar methods may ease the logjams considerably. The time spent disseminating the information will be more than regained when decisions must be made. Of course, some will undoubtedly raise the question of confidentiality. But managers would be well advised to weigh the risks of exposing privileged information against having subordinates who can make effective decisions.

At stake is the difference between personal learning and organizational learning. As he tackles the problems of the job, the individual manager certainly learns and gains experience, but is that learning locked in the manager’s brain or does the organization learn so it can apply the experience when the manager is gone or is unavailable?

Global operations, short tenures, the requirements of continuous innovation, and the demand to respond in ever shorter time frames to opportunities or threats, means that the enterprise can no longer afford to be dependent on the individual but must encourage a new approach. Only by delivering true organizational learning can the enterprise hope to be robust and agile enough.

This is why the limitations of e-mail are such a problem. The personal nature of the creation of the fragment is great, but the fixed distribution and the difficulties in finding and connecting fragments represent a real challenge to organizational learning. The web has made it easier to connect fragments through the introduction of the hyperlink, but browsing the web is a one-way process. There is no dialog. There is no serendipity. A new approach is needed.

The paradox of the market

There is a great paradox at the heart of business. On one hand, business leaders extol the free market and encourage it as the best guarantee of efficiency and the prime source of wealth creation. On the other, they frequently organize their enterprises for centralized control and they consistently impose top-down planning and forecasting regimes that would be deeply appreciated by any Stalinist leader. But, as we have seen on a geopolitical scale in the twentieth century, while you can run an economy like that for a while, it destroys wealth (and even lives) and it can not last.

Business leaders are rediscovering the benefits of the market. In an economy where you need to be nimble to take advantage of every opportunity and counter any threat and where you need to continuously innovate and drive that innovation through to new products and services just to stay in business, central panning is simply not an option for the large enterprise. A market economy is proved to have the flexibility and robustness we require. SAP, a software company that for many people represents the very best and the very worst in central planning, knows that it has to change and, more importantly, that the organization has to change into what they call the “real-time enterprise”. Writing in Realtime, their 2004 tribute to founder Hasso Plattner, the board makes the point that this will be a painful transition for their customers:

The real-time enterprise will challenge the command and control structures common to many companies. Managers will struggle to empower employees yet keep their actions aligned with corporate values and evolving processes.

The new enterprise values flexibility over robustness and even over cost and price, but this is a difficult transition.

One of the points about an efficient market is the free and uniform availability of information. If, then, you want a market within your organization where the product is innovation and the cost is effort and commitment, then you need to enable communication. The creation and distribution of knowledge is essential. Knowledge that can connect people, knowledge that can be discovered and combined: it is the marriage of knowledge with knowledge that breeds more knowledge and fosters innovation.

Summary: a new age

The second paradox of modern business is that it must be both large and small. Our challenges, globally and nationally, are large and require the coordinated efforts of the corporation to solve. But innovation is local and calls for small, autonomous teams made up of educated and connected individuals.

We are in a new economy with new challenges. Global competition, the concerns over the environment, and the informed consumer all generate enormous pressures on the enterprise to innovate. Meeting these challenges will require a new mindset. It is a new age of business but more than that, it is a new way of life.

The comparison with the end of the Dark Ages is striking. Then, as now, there was a new focus on the individual and what the individual can contribute outside his regulated role or office. Then, as now, there was a tremendous, orders-of-magnitude, growth in content and knowledge creation stimulated by a desire to innovate. Then, as now, this growth took place in a new form: then as the bookish text, now as the fragment. And then, as now, there was a need to develop new tools to manage this expansion in the corpus of information and experience.

We are truly at the end of an age. But what will our Renaissance hold for the enterprise?