Consumerization of IT: The Social Networking Problem

Social tools debuting at the enterprise level face many pitfalls that can derail even the best laid plans. A few IT leaders speaking at the Consumerization of IT in the Enterprise Conference and Expo in San Francisco last week revealed some of these social danger zones.

Social collaboration tools from enterprise vendors such as Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and Salesforce can help co-workers find each other over a vast expanse of departments and buildings to work on a project. Co-workers can communicate through text, pictures, audio and video. Employee blogs and wikis form a knowledge base that lets employees find answers to questions in mere minutes.

"I answer one question for 18,000 people," says Bryce Williams, social collaboration consultant charged with making social networking pervasive at pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. "I never have to ask the same question twice. If someone asks the same question, I just link" to the answer.

Yet a few missteps can trip up even the most promising social enterprise networking effort. They include a poor internal marketing effort from the outset that leads to lackluster participation, as well as employees secretly seeking to undermine social networking.

Coming Soon to a Computer Screen Near You

A poor first showing of a social collaboration site or tool can put an end to the technology before it has a chance to take hold. That is, a social network needs to get to critical mass quickly. Think of it as a new-age twist on Metcalfe's Law: Greater participation means more value, yet newness means there's little or no initial participation.

Dan Pontefract, senior director of learning and collaboration at Telus, a major wireless telco in Canada, tried to get out in front of this conundrum by putting together a site and video about collaboration and social tools that are coming to a computer screen near you. Called What If, this "movie trailer" was designed to inform and excite.

"Didn't go as well as it should have," Pontefract says. "People didn't have any idea what this was and got more confused. Lesson learned is that you need some of the tools" already in place.

Kevin Jones, consulting social and organizational strategist at NASA's Marshall and Goddard Space Flight Centers, had similar issues with NASA's Spacebook, an enterprise social network designed around Facebook and launched in the summer of 2009 to much fanfare.

"It failed because the focus wasn't on people," Jones says.

Spacebook's problem was that it began life as an IT project, one that didn't take into consideration an organization's culture and politics--"but that's the glue," Jones says. "No one knew how Spacebook would help them do their jobs," as opposed to an existing method of collaboration, such as email.

Now Jones says the way to get people to use collaboration technologies is to force them. This means shutting down or restricting existing ways they collaborate. Companies that try to do both-- new social collaboration and old email--won't be successful, Jones says. That is, people will naturally default to what they already know.

While employees might whine at first, they'll want to collaborate and eventually use the new tools. "It's like shutting down all the dance clubs except one," Jones says. "If they want to dance, they've got to go there."

Look Who's Talking

Once people start using social tools, you're still not out of the woods.

IT leaders warn that some older workers might view the new social tools with a skeptical eye. Social networking in the enterprise has been billed as a way to recruit and retain the younger generation. Older workers may feel social networking keeps them out of the conversation and undermines their careers.

Though this is a common fear, Pontefract denies that social networking has generational gap consequences. "That's absolutely balderdash," he says.

Another problem is workers who will try to take over the conversation.

Enterprise social networking experts need to be wary of these potential pitfalls, but this doesn't mean that they should stop people from making critical comments about the company. At Eli Lilly, Williams worried that management would take a tough stance against an employee who posted critical comments.

As it happened, the critical comment received 88 replies. The issue quickly rose up the command chain to the vice president of human resources. Within four weeks, Eli Lilly responded positively to the issue. "It's the value of working out loud," Williams says.

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The flip side, of course, is the handful of employees who constantly complain, vent and bicker, usually on micro-blogging platforms. IT leaders advice: Let them do it. If you staunch their voice, then you destroy trust.

How do you avoid social networking problems? The trick is knowing how people interact, not necessarily the intricacies of the technology. For instance, social networking is self-regulating and self-outing so that peer pressure will often correct behavior without corporate intervention.

"You have a social reputation," Jones says. "When you have more eyes, there will be less complaining because [nobody] wants to appear as a whiner."

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple and Networking for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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