Naked IT: Shel Israel on social media and IT (includes podcast)

The Naked IT interview series talks with innovators about the evolving relationship between IT and business. Please listen to the audio podcast and read this blog post for additional analysis not included in the recording.

The Naked IT interview series talks with innovators about the evolving relationship between IT and business. Please listen to the audio podcast and read this blog post for additional analysis not included in the recording.

In this segment, we talk with Shel Israel, co-author (with Robert Scoble) of Naked Conversations, an influential book describing the impact of blogs on the business world. Shel's work covers how social media is changing the way the enterprise interacts with its markets and other constituencies.

Shel is currently exploring the role of social media in society through an interview project called Global Neighborhoods, which SAP is sponsoring. I asked Shel to describe the project's goals:

[To learn] what's really going on, in the world, regarding social media in culture and social media in business. Why culture? Because whatever happens to culture will shape the business that's done there....Instead of trying to aggregate a lot of statistics and put them on a spreadsheet, the assignment was to go out and speak to people, wherever I could find them, who have something interesting to say about their culture, wherever it is.

Changes at the intersection of technology and culture have hit the enterprise in the form of social media. As the interview describes, the ramifications across both technical and business domains are substantial. While these changes are still nascent, they portend a larger evolution. Shel Israel's work on Global Neighborhoods suggests what that future may look like.

Why social media matters

One major theme stood out during the entire discussion with Shel: social media achieves its goals by removing layers between two parties involved in communication:

The fewer intermediaries the more efficient everything is...If the guy who makes something can talk to the person who uses it, it's very efficient. If you save all that money, you can use that money to:

A. Reward the investors better

B. Make better products, and

C. Retain a good deal of cash because your margin is up

My take: This view implies that communication is a "transaction" where efficiency and directness are critical values. While certainly true in many instances, there are times when organizations, for a variety of reasons, deliberately insert intermediaries into the dialog with external constituencies. Right or wrong, entire corporate departments are dedicated to carefully shaping corporate marketing and policy messages.

Public relations, corporate communications, and investor relations are several examples where the need for enterprise control generally trumps the free and spontaneous flow of information. As social media slowly makes inroads into the enterprise, new models will incorporate "layer-free communications" within existing corporate structures. However, those days certainly aren't here yet.

Social media and the enterprise

Social media is often considered in light of tools such as Twitter, Seesmic, and other enterprise 2.0 products. Comments from some people in the enterprise suggest such that such tools are tangential, serving more as entertainment than serious supports to business.

Shel offered his view on the implications of social media for the enterprise, based on the fifty interviews he has conducted to date for the Global Neighborhoods project:

If you know that suppression is increasing in Egypt, that women are being forced to wear a burqa over what is secretly probably blue jeans and high heels underneath; if you know that technology is seen as a cultural corrupter, then it will impact how you plan to do business in Egypt.

If you know that Ethan, a 17-year high schooler in western Connecticut, [will only work for a company that trusts him enough to allow him to blog], this would tell a company like SAP that in the future, the best and brightest of the next generation coming into the workplace, is going to want to use social media tools to do their jobs.

Large organizations, that want to be in touch with their constituencies, need to use social media more effectively...and with their employees as well....[For example,] they better use social media in recruitment. Craigslist isn't going to do it for the next generation.

My take: The great debate regarding the value of social media tools in the enterprise is going strong. The Global Neighborhood interviews point toward the future, to a time when the enterprise embraces social media as a mechanism to enhance communications. However, that time has not yet arrived, and for the moment, social media remains an interesting curiosity for most large enterprises. On the other hand, forward-thinking organizations are studying how to integrate social media, minimizing disruption wherever possible, to gain its benefits.

Social Media and IT

Shel takes a compassionate, but hard-nosed, view of IT. I asked for his views on IT failure, particularly in regard to social media projects:

IT is told to do something in a ridiculously short time, without budget, without human resources, dealing with technology that is not yet bulletproof for enterprise use. Social media, by its definition, goes in and out of the protections of a firewall with glee and freedom. These are all huge problems for IT.

Social media removes centralized control for the most part, and empowers individuals to do what they want directly.

The IT guy is someone my heart goes out to, because he's got an extremely difficult job. People who he reports to see him as a cog in progress and a drain of money; the people he's supposed to serve see him as a bottleneck....

Given these comments, what is an appropriate role for IT, with respect to social media?

IT sometimes put in the position of being expected to make something happen when they are not needed....Does IT [even] have a role making social media happen at the central level?

I pointed out that that some people might view this position as "dangerous":

Yes, treason is a word that comes up.

My take: Shel believes there is little role for IT in deploying social media, aside from maintaining whatever network infrastructure is needed to run the software. From his perspective, a primary benefit of social media is reducing centralized control over systems and communications, which is of course heresy from some points of view.

Many IT departments have already discovered users adopting social media tools, perhaps bypassing corporate policies in the process. As social media proliferates through the enterprise due to grassroots downloading, IT will increasingly see the erosion of its ability to function as technical gatekeeper. Making matters worse, anti-social media policies are likely to fail, as new technologies enable users to take matters into their own hands.

If you manage an IT department and want to succeed with social media, take the following steps:

  1. Conduct an honest assessment of the extent to which social media is already being used in your organization. The results will suggest how urgent the issue is for your company.
  2. Ask users what they hope to accomplish with social media and why it's important to them.
  3. Determine the technical challenges, and related solutions, involved with supporting social media within the context of your environment, policies, and infrastructure.

Engage users in dialog and your IT department will become a leader in the new world of social media software.

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