Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Getting started with enterprise social networking


Last week, I had the pleasure of speaking at the annual Online Information conference in London, filling for Richard Denison from BT who was otherwise engaged. I tried to stick roughly to the topic he had planned to cover, which was online social networking inside the enterprise
The slides of my session are available below, but the main points were so simple that I thought I should summarise them here for people who have experienced enough of my slide-based munitions this year

What I really like about the consumer Web 2.0 world is the fact that it has given us an amazing experimental laboratory for new tools and communication techniques. It has produced a Cambrian explosion of start ups, tools, features and buzzwords, each of which has evolved very quickly through exposure to rapid feedback at scale. Conversely, in the enterprise tools space, users are of secondary importance and therefore there are few evolutionary pressures that can improve the generally poor quality tools and systems that IT departments force on the business. This is starting to change as more and more senior people ask why their children have access to more effective tools on their home PCs than they have access to in the office. “Why can’t it just be simple like Google?” is a commonly heard plea. This is producing pressure for change, and at some point this will feed into budgetary pressures to force change in enterprise IT
The history of the corporation shows us that old ideas can achieve incredible longevity when embedded in business processes. The imprint of the industrial revolution, and its model of machine-based production efficiency, is still present today. So too is the bureaucratic model described by Max Weber. By contrast, Frederick Taylor’s 1911 theory of scientific management seems positively modern. But what all of these models neglect is the older, more pervasive tradition of social networking in business. From Arabian traders to modern lawyers and accountants, the wheels of business have been lubricated by social contact, social status, food, parties and networking. People buy from people, as salespeople often remark
The rise of enterprise computing took on many of the ideas and models of the C20th corporation, and proceeded to further centralise and de-personalise the way we work in pursuit of efficiency. But it turns out that completely process-driven specialisation and exchange models are not always terribly efficient, and they can be downright wasteful and dangerous, as we have seen in the banking crisis, and as we are also seeing in government provision of health and social care in the UK, for example
Far from replacing us with robots, technology is now all about augmenting human interaction and helping us scale up intimacy and collaboration. It is allowing us to do business as we have always done, and to leave behind the C20th mass industrialised models that gave us the First World War, Stalinism, ERP and BPM
Control and micromanagement, it turns out, is very expensive, and trusting people is a lot cheaper. In a recession, it will become harder and harder to argue that enterprise IT spending should continue along similar lines to those we have seen since the 1990’s. If there are genuinely cheaper and more effective ways of running businesses, then only a fool would ignore them in favour of continuing with unloved and ineffective five-year-plan IT strategy
Whereas Knowledge and Information Management have been about capturing and managing content, storing it and then transporting it to where it is needed, enterprise social computing leverages human brain power to derive relevance and usefulness, and instead of managing content object by object, it seeks to help create healthy feeds and flows of information that people can use in their work. Enterprise social computing (aka Enterprise 2.0) places the individual at the centre and seeks to incentivise participation in return for individual benefit, not some theoretical collective sharing benefit.
If we start from the point of view that we are hiring the right people and they are broadly aligned towards shared goals, then we can use people power to organise information better through social bookmarking and emergent information architecture. We can also leverage peoples’ own social networks as more appropriate delivery mechanisms for useful information and also to add value and relevance to information search and retrieval. Business social networks based on weak ties are arguably a vital element of an organisational immune system that can avoid catastrophic mistakes and maintain a healthy level of discussion and debate about the mission of the company
But when people talk about social networking, many people in business today think about Facebook, sheep-throwing, poking and embarrassing morning-after pictures on MySpace. It is a common misconception that this is what social networking is all about. In fact, there are probably four basic features of an internal social networking system

  • Adaptive personal profiles that update based on your activity and interests as expressed through the content you produce
  • The ability to manage contacts, form networks and groups and choose whose activity to ‘follow’
  • Status and presence updates that can be easily shared with your networks – where you are and what you are doing
  • Social bookmarking and sharing of useful information, links or thoughts with your networks and groups
None of these are technically difficult, and we are starting to see these basic features incorporated into more general enterprise social tools such as Socialtext, Connectbeam, Newsgator and Lotus Connections
A good place to start might be some kind of internal directory or
personal profiles, perhaps integrating with corporate Active Directory or LDAP systems. As with all enterprise social tools, it also makes sense to think in terms of what this lightweight social layer can do to add value to existing enterprise tools and systems. For example, social bookmarking and tagging combine really well with old-style Content Management Systems or repositories
In my talk, I looked at four basic examples of potential uses for enterprise social networking, but there are many more

  • Social reading and writing. A super simple but effective way to develop collective intelligence within a knowledge intensive firm is to get people sharing their reading and writing through Enterprise RSS, bookmarking and blogs. This is an order of magnitude cheaper than traditional internal information sharing, newsletters and research.
  • Social search and expertise location. Social networks and activity streams are a great way to find know who as a well as know how rather than relying on formal, static statements of competency and skills. Social search is especially useful in large organisations where a general search produces too much irrelevant information. Narrowing the scope of information searches to your own social network is a great way of reducing noise.
  • Social networking for collaboration. Staying in touch with the activities of people who you work with on projects need not be difficult, and this kind of ambient awareness can produce real benefits in terms of time saving and potentially useful serendipitous connections. Social networking features are a natural complement to wikis and other group collaboration tools.
  • Social networking for key client relationships. Connecting up people in partner organisations who are working together is a useful way to overcome organisational boundaries on projects, and can help keep you in close touch with key clients, which helps build trust and loyalty.
  • Unified messaging. There is a lot of interest right now in replicating the success of micro-messaging systems such as Twitter within the enterprise. This has all the benefits of Instant Messaging with the advantages of being embedded in your working groups and networks, but with less interruption cost.
  • Harnessing attention metadata. A longer term benefit of business social networking is the rich data about how people invest their attention, which can be used to drive better recommendations and more personalised services in future. A good example of this is the way Newsgator produces recommendations of popular or relevant news feeds you might want to consume, based on what your colleagues are reading.
So, how to begin? I think one of the first steps is to have a grown up conversation about risk. Not one of those blinkered IT conversations that says all sharing is wrong and employees cannot be trusted to speak or write about their work, but rather a conversation that looks at benefits vs costs and real risks based on evidence, not assumptions. This can be a good way of dealing with hidden fears or misconceptions about social tools. Next, I would recommend starting with any kind of internal directory system that is currently in active use, and branch out from there. To gradually wean people off email, which is hard to do, we sometimes think in terms of transition strategies such as proving RSS into Outlook and blackberries so that people can work with tools they are already comfortable with, but in a new way. This can help bridge the gap between old and new ways of working. Another important tip is to look at the role of information and communication professionals, and seek to find ways of making their activity more focused on information networking and helping others develop key competencies around searching, sharing and personal information management
But most of all, focus on clear (and ideally measurable) business use cases where the simplicity of social networking can save time and money or avoid duplication of effort. It is better to build an adoption strategy that pays for itself every step of the way than to have to make speculative investment cases to sceptical managers. The kind of use cases that work best for enterprise social tools are what Michael Idinopulos called ‘in the flow’ rather than ‘above the flow’ use cases. If you can help people do their job better, you have a chance of engaging them; if you ask them to stop working to come and play with your shiny new tools, then you do not
And finally, another important change in the way we see IT provision is that the customer for these tools is the individual, not the IT department or the company as a whole. If it doesn’t meet real needs for individual users, it will not work, regardless of whether it seems like a good idea or not
Internal social networking is undergoing fairly rapid adoption right now. I think we have moved away from the idea that we need to recreate Facebook inside the company (you can’t; but done right it is possible to allow users to link their internal and external profiles if they wish), and we will now see some quite focused and businesslike use cases for internal social networking emerge. This is precisely the kind of low cost, simple, people-powered approach to sharing and managing information in businesses that we need as IT spending decreases and companies seek greater efficiencies of operation.

4 Responses to Getting started with enterprise social networking

  1. By Annalise on December 11, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    eZanga’s social network, has refreshed the way they distribute content, and added a way to build and maintain relationships along with expanding your online community. They reward registered users with points to use toward cash and prizes just for interacting on the site. Some of the ways to earn points are: updating a blog, inviting a friend, and adding a picture. They also offer features such as page personalization, drag-and-drop features, unlimited space for photos, and much more. HopOnThis offers a productive social experience, while adding to the strength of advertiser’s campaigns.

  2. By Mary Abraham on December 11, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Great post, Lee. It would be interesting to see the various options organized in terms of financial cost and training (or re-training) effort. In this environment, that could be deciding factor.
    – Mary

  3. By Joe on March 26, 2009 at 1:44 am

    The challenge I see with adoption is the cost associated with it. To deploy Lotus or Socialtext or Clearspace requires significant up front investment. Trying to show ROI at each step becomes challenging.

  4. By Lee Bryant on March 27, 2009 at 8:44 am

    I agree the cost differences can be an important factor, both in the initial licensing and ongoing training, etc.
    Products like Socialtext, Jive Clearspace and Lotus Connections do indeed have higher licensing costs than, say, Confluence (which is incredibly cheap for what it does). But then, these products also provide a more rounded, full-service solution that delivers better value in my view than most existing enterprise products at comparable license costs.
    But I think all these products will get cheaper. Vendors have set themselves up to reap the rewards of a growing market, and as it becomes easier and cheaper to sell these products into companies, so to we can expect the license fees to fall.
    One more point: beware the apparently ‘free’ nature of products such as Sharepoint where IT departments will tell you they have the licenses already. The true licensing cost of Sharepoint is higher than any of the products above, and in most cases it is coming out of the IT budget somewhere, even if it is not always clear.