Success stories are seductive because they are much easier to obtain than stories about social business failures. Vendors serve up success stories on a silver platter, whenever they can convince a customer to serve as a reference.
I believe the success stories of enterprise social networking are out there, but it's also clear that they aren't as common or as easy to achieve as you might expect. As part of my research for a Jan. 5 BYTE webcast I'll be participating in (The Rise of Social Networks in the Enterprise), I've turned my attention to the obstacles to success.
Some of the material below comes from a close reading of the social business predictions for 2012 from Dion Hinchcliffe, executive vice president of strategy at Dachis Group, and the articles he links to. One of his predictions is that social intranets, or enterprise social networks, will continue to struggle for adoption.
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"Those overhauling their intranets to make them more social have had a long, hard time of it," Hinchcliffe writes. "To be clear, this is not because social intranets aren't useful, but coordinating (and sometimes fighting) the IT department, corporate communications, HR, and often competing vendor camps inside the company means that many firms aren't as far along as they should be."
The notion of an enterprise 2.0 revolution in business around social software goes back to at least 2006 and Andrew McAfee's definition of how Web 2.0 technologies would change business. The BrainYard and UBM's Enterprise 2.0 conferences are built around the notion that this truth is self-evident. Given how successful Facebook and other social experiences are on the consumer Web, why wouldn't every organization flock to this vision of agile, spontaneous, transparent, and people-centered corporate collaboration?
Sadly, there are a few reasons.
1. Command-and-control culture. Who says every organization wants to be transparent and flexible and invite participation from every quarter? What if the CEO sees corporate social media as giving employees the tools they can use to plot against him? Why foster the illusion of democratic organization if that's not the way you want to run the company?
I'm painting an extreme picture, but it doesn't take a Dilbert-style Pointy-Haired Boss. Lots of moderately conservative organizations will think twice--and maybe rightly so--about whether an internal social network makes sense for their corporate culture.
2. Facebook connotations. The phrase "Facebook inside our company" works magic in some quarters. When I wrote about the SAS Institute implementation of Socialcast earlier this year, that was exactly the phrase the corporate communication folks promoting the project used. They heard "Facebook" and thought, this collaboration system will spread virally through our company, and isn't that wonderful.
Facebook has other connotations, however. If management hears "Facebook" and thinks "frivolous, time-wasting medium people will use to share jokes and baby photos," then appealing to a comparison with Facebook or even using the world "social" will only make it more difficult to sell the concept internally.
3. Profusion of tools. The explosion of social software tools is a source of great innovation, but also a lot of confusion. Organizations can easily wind up with several enterprise social networks used by different teams or departments, or for different purposes, along with social applications for purposes such as project management or employee recognition, each coming with their own user profiles and activity steams and notions of how connections are formed.
A fragmented social environment--one that promises a global view of people and activity but in fact does not--might be worse than none at all.
4. Lack of integration.. In enterprise IT, integration is the universal goal that is never quite perfectly achieved. Perfection is not achievable, but for every application there is a threshold of "good enough" integration to make the system usable. One of the hurdles that successful enterprise social networks must clear is having enough integration with relevant systems such as corporate directories and content management systems that they deliver on their promise as next-generation, people-centric portals.
The vendors can deliver all the application programming interfaces imaginable, but achieving the necessary integrations still requires IT time and effort. If an enterprise social network launches with significant integration gaps, employees might come away unimpressed.
5. SharePoint. Microsoft's portal platform was singled out for scorn as part of Hincliffe's lament about "competing vendor camps" within enterprises slowing down adoption of social software. "SharePoint has often slowed down the move to more social tools for big companies in particular," he wrote.
Although SharePoint is ubiquitous as a collaboration and document management platform, it has a reputation as an incomplete social platform. Microsoft provides some of the basic elements for social profiles and activity feeds, but creating a complete social environment from SharePoint requires either heavy customization or an add-on product such as NewsGator Social Sites.
6. Competition from free public social networks. Employees will inevitably compare their experience on an enterprise social network with the one they enjoy on consumer sites such as Facebook. That can be a problem if the enterprise experience suffers by comparison by being awkward to navigate, frustrating to use, or missing important features.
Also, if there is too much bureaucracy and administrative overhead associated with the corporate social environment, some project teams might find it easier to collaborate through a Facebook group or a freemium product such as Yammer or Teambox.
Is that a bad thing? It certainly can be if sensitive information is being shared through a tool that doesn't meet corporate security and compliance requirements. A Facebook group could be a fine solution for organizing a holiday party but not a merger. In the case of the freemium solution such as Yammer, the open-minded organization might at least consider the solution of "paving the cow paths" by officially sanctioning something that's already working and establishing corporate control over it.
7. Compliance headaches. Regulated industries such as financial services and healthcare must pay particular attention to whether an enterprise social network meets compliance requirements such as data archiving. Moreover, they might tend to see more risk than benefit in a technology that makes it easy to share information widely when they have a responsibility to keep some categories of information under tight control.
These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they can slow things down.
8. Lack of fit for business processes and workflows. Ideally, social software should make business processes more efficient. When you see someone post that they are working on the same problem you are, you can combine forces. When you have a question you need answered, you can ask it of the entire company--or of the relevant department or interest group--and often get an answer much more quickly. For maximum effect, the social experience should be embedded in the business processes you want to accelerate. On the other hand, failing to fit the two together smoothly can inhibit adoption.
9. Optional vs. mandated. With few exceptions, such as the case of the French IT services firm Atos banning email in favor of social collaboration, organizations that adopt internal social software promote its use but do not make it mandatory. Dictating a solution might be easier. At least, it might sound easier.
But voluntary adoption is probably the right approach. If social software really is so wonderful, employees ought to gravitate to it naturally, as something that makes their lives easier. If the adoption is not happening, maybe it's the social network that needs to change to accommodate employee behavior, rather than the other way around.
10. Groupware, knowledge management hangover. Haven't we heard all these promises before? The vision of enterprise social networking sure can sound a lot like the benefits that were supposed to be delivered by previous generations of enterprise collaboration, workflow, and knowledge-management products. Sure, sure, it's different this time.
For social software to be successful, it has to do a better job of living up to its own hype.
Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard The Enterprise Connect conference program covers the full range of platforms, services, and applications that comprise modern communications and collaboration systems. It happens March 25-29 in Orlando, Fla. Find out more.