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Language Of Social Sounds Too Soft To Business

Why is Enterprise 2.0 still considered more of a "movement" than a business imperative? Its evangelists speak more like Dr. Phil than Jack Welch.
Deutsche Bank managing director John Stepper, in describing his own missteps, sums up what's wrong with the social business movement. In a keynote address at this week's Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston, a UBM TechWeb event, Stepper related spending a good year trying to become the "social media guy" at the bank, culminating in a trip to London to persuade the powers-that-be to invest in a collaboration software platform.

When they asked him which specific business problems his "solution" would ostensibly solve, he didn't have much of an answer beyond the esoteric promise of enhancing engagement and promoting knowledge sharing. Worthy goals, but how would those things improve business performance?

Stepper learned his lesson, and he eventually got his approval for a collaboration platform that, come fall, will serve 5,000 employees across 20 role-based and other communities. Among the hard goals: Reduce superfluous emails and meetings by 25% and cut help desk calls by 50%, while also delivering the softer benefits Stepper outlined in his original proposal.

Part of the reason social networking tools still aren't mainstream at most organizations is because Enterprise 2.0 is still considered more of a "movement" than a business imperative. The movement's evangelists employ the kumbaya language of community engagement rather than the more precise language of increasing sales, slashing costs, and reducing customer complaints. They yearn to empower employees, crowdsource ideas, facilitate storytelling, nurture advocacy, and unleash passion. It sometimes feels like an episode of Dr. Phil.

In his BrainYard column "Hard And Soft Power In Enterprise 2.0," Venkatesh Rao also draws a contrast between the hard-edged reality of the business world and the kinder, gentler "win-win," "co-creation," and "delighting customers" specter of the social business movement. "Consider the words that are conspicuously absent: winning, losing, out-maneuvering, competition, fighting, deception, coercion, exploitation, weaknesses, penalty, lawsuit, perception management, spin, inter-tribal warfare," Rao writes.

Even the names of some Enterprise 2.0 software vendors convey a less than rigorous business purpose. Take microblogging software provider Yammer, whose catchy name was conceived to convey "persistent communications," says CEO David Sacks, but which literally means to whine or whimper. Or Jive, which can mean glib, deceptive, or foolish talk--B.S. And Twitter? A short burst of inconsequential information. What's next--a content management provider called Drivel and a reputation management software company called Sycophant? No wonder it's taking CEOs and CIOs so long to take social business seriously.

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All that said, there's a reason we're still talking about social business and why it's important. It's not the cases where the CEO and CIO have issued a mandate to use this platform or that tool. It's where grass roots user adoption (think Yammer) is solving real problems.

John Hagel, co-chairman of Deloitte's Center for the Edge, relates how a "bunch of old guys" in the Metropolitan Transit Authority's maintenance department took to a microblogging tool to help them solve a nagging problem: locating hard-to-find parts for buses. "It completely transformed their view of social software," Hagel said at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference. "They drilled down and saw they could use technology to affect operating performance."

The old guys at the MTA weren't and aren't Enterprise 2.0 groupies. They just wanted a better way to get important work done. The future of this "movement" hinges on it attracting many more like them.

Rob Preston,
VP and Editor in Chief, InformationWeek
[email protected]

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