Many CIOs have, with some degree of relief, relegated social media to marketing or public information departments. But it can't stay that way.
I went into a restaurant for a meeting of the Georgia Tech alumni association the other day, and noticed that I was exhorted to check them out online at www.facebook.com/restaurantname. No, not "restaurantname.com", but "facebook.com/restaurauntname". That's when I realized that the jokes about Facebook replacing the Internet had become reality.
No wonder that Google, realizing that one cannot continue to dominate the Internet by being a 1990s-style search engine, announced a more social Google last week. And, no wonder that Facebook fired back with its Skype integration announcement this week. Game on!
But the weird thing about social networks and associated applications is that IT looks at them in a rather hostile way. I can totally appreciate this, because I've been in the network security business. For a long time, I made a living unscrewing corporate networks from the latest-and-greatest social phenomenon, whether it was problems resulting from Limewire or MySpace (remember them?) And, while I haven't had to directly deal with Facebook-related malware, I completely sympathize with those who have.
But these are growing pains. Early technologies and systems have always fallen prey to confidence men, whether you're talking about the Internet, social networks, or the post WWI antics of Victor Lustig, "the man who sold the Eiffel Tower," who got his start by selling a machine that magically printed $100 bills. Sound a little bit like "punch the monkey and win $100?"
The suspicion runs deep. If it can't be decoded by my packet analyzer, it must be bad. One of my colleagues recently said this about Skype, right after the Microsoft purchase. Frankly, it could have been any one of my esteemed security colleagues, who--appropriately--want to look out for their customers, and engage in problem-minimization. "[The] protocol has a long history of being problematic for network security devices to intercept and track properly, which makes it a great exit point for outbound data or conduit for malicious activity. ... It can definitely reduce productivity and give another avenue for an employee to disclose confidential information, and it will be difficult for an enterprise to identify that breach."
I probably wrote something like that about Gnutella or Limewire back in the day. Heck, someone probably wrote that when the phone entered the workplace. But here's the difference. Social networks are massively valued by businesses--places like the restaurant that I ate in the other day. This is because a social network tends to be far more trusted than an ad-hoc network.
What do I mean? Think about this: two salespeople walk into your office. You only have time to talk to one of them. The first is someone who your counterpart in another part of the country has used, and you've heard a lot about the successful implementation. The other one is essentially a cold call. Who gets your time and attention? Right. In the same way, you might not trust restaurant reviews of someone who you don't know on Yelp, but you would definitely trust one of your Facebook friends' restaurant recommendations.
It's that powerful trust that YOUR employer wants to tap into. Or they should. If you don't help them because you just don't want to deal with the inevitable growing pains, and the inevitable profusion of scammers, someone else will.
It is very clear to me, both from Google's recent move as well as Facebook's estimated market capitalization ($70 billion, according to CBS MoneyWatch), how much is riding on social networking. For IT to stay relevant, IT will have to move from passive-aggressive through merely passive, and all the way to actively enabling. That is, don't just "allow" the organization to use social media, but start actively integrating enterprise applications with social media. Yes, I know, many CIOs have--with some degree of relief--relegated social media to marketing or public information business units. But it can't stay that way.
Back in the day, organizations were reluctant to take customers out of brick-and-mortar service centers and start taking cash and queries on the Web. But here we are, and organizations have often saved on headcount and created tremendous efficiencies. Still, the customer experience varies, and it is often felt to be impersonal. The next level up is "community." From VMWare to United Business Media to MakerBot Industries, organizations have found that establishing online communities can ease customer pain and bring the love back. But the next level beckons.
The next level is the social customer. The question is, who's going to win, Google or Facebook? Some folks say one, some say the other. As for me, I keep in mind this 2007 map of online communities from xkcd, where MySpace (remember them?) dominates, compared to this one from 2010. (The guy at xkcd may not be an analyst, but he does seem to do his homework, and his 2010 map seems in line with Flowtown's analysis.)
Nobody, and I mean nobody, really knows how this is going to play out. I mean, we left Apple for dead prior to 2001, and many thought that AOL would have a stranglehold on your grandmother forever. But one thing is certain. IT organizations need to take the battle royale as a sign, and actively do something about it.
Jonathan Feldman is a contributing editor for InformationWeek and director of IT services for a rapidly growing city in North Carolina. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at @_jfeldman.
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