Social wariness is wise for business

David Tebbutt, originally published on IWR

Published/updated: November 2009

A colleague pulled me up with a start the other day when I was talking about the value of social software to organisations. My assertion was that, since nothing gets done without people collaborating, social software has to be an ideal supporting mechanism. He pointed out that a lot of office work occurs through engagement with structured systems, workflow or ERP for example, without people getting anywhere near IM, blogs, wikis, social networks, etc.

Much work in supermarkets, manufacturing, refuse collection, mining and so on requires little or no computer support. It’s easy to forget that hard core ‘knowledge workers’ are still a minority, albeit a substantial one. According to a report by the Work Foundation in March, they represent 33% of the UK workforce. A further 27% are involved in some knowledge tasks, while it’s barely on the radar of the remaining 40%. And it’s likely only a minority of knowledge workers use social networking tools at work.

Until now, I’ve scoffed at the poor penetration of social tools into organisations. I’ve cheered on the evangelists as they carry out their ‘conversions’. But perhaps this is wrong. Perhaps the evangelists themselves are wrong. Once the right people in an organisation – the knowledge workers, project teams, communities of interest, or whoever – have adopted social networking tools to accelerate their own projects, perhaps they can then involve others through recommendations or invitations.

It’s all very well to proclaim that email is dead, as some do, but why inflict social media on someone who’s already at full stretch to cope with email? This is the problem with evangelism. It doesn’t always take into account life as it’s really lived (and, yes, a bit of mea culpa is due here.) Email is fine and it works. Even throwing Word documents around with comments and tracked changes is better for many than having to learn how to use a wiki. In a 2006 blog post called ‘The 9X Email Problem’ Andrew McAfee at Harvard Business School explains how something needs to be nine times better to get people to move from what they’re using at the moment.

And, let’s be frank, IT central has probably got a much better security handle on email and traditional corporate systems than they have on the social stuff. Fortunately, you can install a lot of social systems behind the firewall as appliances or applications rather than having them ‘out there’ in the cloud. But this still requires the company to take it seriously, and therein lies a paradox. If social tools are only genuinely useful to a minority of the workforce, how can board level or even IT interest be secured?

Do you put it in as a skunk works operation, as the BBC did many years ago, and say, ìeveryone can use itî? And then get masses of ‘personal social’ interactions along with the business stuff? Or implement it for the chosen few? Or implement it for all to use if they want to, but wrap it up in rules? It’s not easy is it? And all this ìit costs very little to doî is not strictly true either. It costs: in learning; in distraction; in time-wasting through the illusion of doing useful things; and in the risk of accidental release of sensitive information. Once you have a formal social system in place, it becomes ‘discoverable’ in a legal context. And this means staff have to use common sense (at the very least) when deciding what information to put online and who they share it with.

It seems to me we’re through the honeymoon period for the evangelists and the abhorrence of the die-hards, and into a cautious acceptance that there might be something in social networking. But we’re still a long way from organisations actually demanding the stuff.

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