Does business social networking really need IT?

Are you wrestling with the idea of bringing social networking (choose your own preferred term) into your organisation? Whether a grass roots movement or an edict from the top, at some point it’s going to impact your department.

A few of the benefits are that: people can reach out to each other through profile pages and search, thus finding sources of help and information relevant to their current work; they can have cross-discipline discussions and form and dissolve project workspaces according to need; and, because everything is online, it cuts the need for progress-reporting meetings. Of course, there’s more to it than this, but it gives a general idea of how social networking might accelerate work.

The evangelists, of course, believe that it can all be done without involving IT. They consider you to be a barrier to their forward momentum. They’re convinced that it should be left to users and third party SaaS providers to transform working life, Enterprise 2.0 style. (Yes, that’s another slogan that’s rapidly approaching its sell-by date.)

Push an evangelist hard enough and they’ll agree that information security is an issue. They’ll also agree that a shakeout in the market is coming and that no-one can predict the survivors, unless they are already well-funded or have names like IBM or Microsoft. Not that Microsoft is being taken seriously in social networking circles yet.

The idea of trusting project information to a SaaS provider is anathema to IT, however desirable the underpinning theory – that collaboration ’in the cloud’ bypasses silos and brings relevant people together from inside and outside the organisation.

Push the evangelists a bit harder and they might say, “Ah, if you’re worried we have an appliance version, which you can run in-house.” And who, pray, will then be responsible for things like storage, backup, recovery, support? Well, you know the answer to that.

Evangelists also tend to forget is that business social networking does not apply across the business or, indeed, across all businesses. Unless you happen to work in a knowledge-intensive organisation, the introduction of these tools to the wrong staff would be a distraction at the very least. They’ll socialise all right, but at the expense of eating into the work they’re supposed to be doing.

However, for people whose life blood is connection, communication, brainstorming, information discovery and suchlike, the tools could prove massively useful, providing they are truly intuitive and require little effort to absorb into their working life. Some vendors claim this is the case. Considerable personal experience tells me this is deeply unlikely.

So we end up with a number of contradictions, the most fundamental of which is that this stuff can be introduced without involving IT. It would be nice to think it were true. And, perhaps, with the knowledge and approval of IT, it would be great to let the users and the SaaS providers get on with it. But, by heck those questions of information security, compliance and discovery (should it be required by the authorities) need to be nailed down to the satisfaction of the CIO and the rest of the board first.

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