It seems it’s still an open question as to whether social software tools like blogs and wikis are ready for the enterprise—or rather, whether the enterprise is ready for them. Of course, although blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, social networking sites and collaborative applications may all fit the general “social software” category, they are not the same thing—each serves a unique purpose, any one of which may be better suited to the enterprise in general, and any specific enterprise in particular. So when talking about the value of “social software,” it’s important to speak about specific tools and technologies. (That said, there is general value in “social software,” just as there is value in, say, “productivity software,” despite the fact that word-processing and spreadsheet tools do very different things.)
In any event, where does social software fit into the enterprise? Well, it depends on the technology in question.
Let’s start with a look a blogs. Blogs are essentially online diaries, and while they may be both interesting and useful (as, we all hope, Collaboration Loop is), it can be difficult for managers to see why they should support a corporate blog. The naysayers have a point—my company doesn’t need to spend resources to support my love for skiing and help me garner my 15 minutes of fame—but they also miss the bigger picture: In the increasingly virtual workplace, it’s important for employees to make virtual connections—and blogs are one way to help them do that.
In the enterprise, there are two ways to use blogs. One is a corporate-supported (and approved) blog that’s meant to be read by the outside world; the other is an internal blog for employees’ eyes only, for sharing information and creating job and interest-related connections. (There are also lots of blogs out there penned by individuals who use the space to discuss their companies and the markets they are in, among other interests, but these are not technically “enterprise blogs,” as they are not established or supported by the companies themselves.)
Frankly, I don’t see a lot of either type of enterprise blog being used today, and I rarely talk to people who have even considered an internal version. But I think that’s actually the type that has the most promise for the enterprise.
Externally-focused blogs can certainly serve a marketing/PR purpose, but to do so they must be carefully constructed and maintained. Customers are savvy, so you can’t “pretend” to be blogging when all you’re really doing is hyping your product. A legitimate enterprise blog will contain timely, insightful and truthful posts on issues related to the company and its products, as well as the broader market and the competition, relevant information on customers’ industries, and even thoughts on the larger economic or political climate, insofar as they affect the company and its business.
But maintaining such a blog isn’t easy. For one thing, that “truth” element is important—it has to be actual truth (the good with the bad), and not, say, truthiness. The question of who among a company’s employees should write for the blog is not negligible—they must be reasonably articulate, and have something to say. Legal will almost certainly want (read: need) to vet the postings. And the company must ensure new entries are posted on a regular basis (ideally daily, or several times daily, depending on the size of the company and its constituent base)—a stale blog is worse than no blog at all; that, in turn, adds to the bloggers’ workload. Given all those constraints, it’s no wonder so many companies have yet to get an official customer-facing blog up and running. (The one exception here are media companies, which continue to test the waters of the “new publishing paradigm” with mixed success.)
Internally-focused blogs are easier to maintain and serve a more relevant purpose. Companies with large numbers of remote or virtual employees can use enterprise blogs to keep those staffers connected to the company and one another. By setting up a variety of blogs tagged to specific topics, companies allow employees to share ideas for new products, IT fixes and best practices, better business processes, strong customer service and any number of personal areas of interest (pets, surfing, 18th-century poetry…). The key is to allow anyone to post, anytime, within the boundaries of corporate policy and legality. Requiring that all posts are automatically accompanied by the employee’s full name, title and contact info (e-mail, IM, phone—with click-to-connect capabilities if your unified communications system allows it) will do two things: Enable to kind of networking you’re trying to achieve with the blogs; and significantly decrease the number of negative or spurious posts.
Blogs aren’t wikis—they’re not intended to be collaborative environments, and generally speaking no one but the original author would change a blog post. Think of them as giant water coolers, where employees can share ideas without actually changing those of their co-workers on the fly. Still, while you don’t want to censor, or even edit, internal blog posts, you will want to monitor them. Most posts that contain incorrect information should be corrected by another post that notes the error and includes the right information; those that are libelous, illegal or clearly in breach of corporate policies should be removed.
And don’t worry too much about productivity losses. Any time spent on company-related information, such as tricks for using a new technology or suggestions for improving the way something is done, is time well spent. But even time spent on seemingly irrelevant topics will yield results: Bob in California and Anne in New York may meet because they both share an interest in French cheese, but as a result, they’re more likely to collaborate down the road in ways that help the business.