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What's Slowing Down Social Collaboration Inside SMBs?

Small and midsize businesses are using social media to deal with customers and generate sales leads, but in-house is another story.

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Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) might be embracing customer-facing social media, but they're not necessarily as eager to use the same tools for internal collaboration and communications.

So says new research from The SMB Group, which recently completed its 2011 SMB Collaboration and Communications Study. Laurie McCabe, partner at The SMB Group, said internal social collaboration simply hasn't hit the mainstream inside smaller firms.

"The vast majority of small businesses, especially, are pretty much using social media as marketing and lead generation tools," McCabe said. "Their desire to use it for internal collaboration is still really in the early going."

Fewer than one in five small businesses (1-99 employees), for example, use the following for internal operations: Video sharing (16%), photo sharing (13%), and Twitter or other microblogging platforms (14%). One in three small businesses use Facebook and LinkedIn for some internal use, and 30% use an instant messaging application. But those numbers still trail external uses by a wide margin--depending on whose numbers you refer to, 70% of SMBs have or plan to deploy a social media marketing strategy--even if that strategy is sometimes poorly defined.

[ Want to boost sales? Read One SMB's Secret For Improving Sales Leads ]

McCabe doesn't necessarily see that changing in the near future, particularly for applications and sites such as Facebook that are open to everyone and anyone. Among the reasons that's noteworthy: Many of those tools are free, which should appeal to smaller companies. McCabe said SMBs aren't setting aside big budgets for social collaboration. She attributes the gap in part to a lack of trust when it comes to sensitive company information.

"One of the things we didn't ask in this survey, but I think is going to impact where people go, is how they feel in terms of privacy and some of the other issues surrounding public domains," McCabe said. "It's a huge leap of faith that I don't think people have."

That could bode well for purpose-built social software such as Salesforce.com's Chatter, which is free and offers businesses an internal Facebook-esque social network restricted to authorized users of a single Web domain.

Internal adoption of social tools runs somewhat higher at midsize firms (100-1,000 employees). Facebook (47%) skews markedly higher, and more than two in five midmarket companies use some form of online discussion forum. Collaboration culture and staff size are two critical related factors here. McCabe said as companies grow, the organizational emphasis on teamwork--as opposed to individual achievement--grows, too. The study found that while one in four small businesses say they recognize individual and group achievement equally, they're in fact much more likely to reward individual accomplishments than team ones (48% 17%). More midsize firms (31%) report equal recognition for individuals and teams--and actually follow through with near-equal rewards. McCabe said that relates directly to higher uptake of social tools for internal uses. It also corresponds to a greater willingness to spend time and money on those tools.

Unsurprisingly, "traditional" collaboration tools--defined in the study by the likes of email, productivity applications, and shared project workspaces--showed high penetration at SMBs. The study noted that email, in particular, remains entrenched in most office environments and shows no signs of stepping aside for the next generation of communications and collaboration tools.

McCabe pointed out that industry lingo could be another factor in adoption rates: The lines between various accepted categories continue to blur, particularly with integrated platforms for collaboration, communications, and productivity. One company's "social collaboration" might be another's "project management," for instance. Moreover, SMBs themselves don't necessarily care what a media person, analyst, or vendor call it--they just want to know if the tools work.

"It's just stuff that helps them do what they need to do to work with other people," McCabe said.

Attend Enterprise 2.0 Santa Clara, Nov. 14-17, 2011, and learn how to drive business value with collaboration, with an emphasis on how real customers are using social software to enable more productive workforces and to be more responsive and engaged with customers and business partners. Register today and save 30% off conference passes, or get a free expo pass with priority code CPHCES02. Find out more and register.

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