Social media is a magnet for hype because it embodies the specifically Western desire to create democracy everywhere. Blogs, wikis, Twitter, and other "flattening" tools transfer power from IT to users, giving social media practitioners the special fervor of those fighting for their own version of peace, justice, and all-around goodness. The democratization of power, whether in society or inside an organization, brings strong passions; social media advocacy is no exception.
On the other hand, power equality is much harder to achieve in practice than in theory. Entrenched organizational hierarchies and power dynamics play a central role in supporting functional corporate goals with reasonable levels of success and efficiency. As Dennis Howlett describes:
In any business, power relationships are what provide the hidden glue that makes organizations develop hierarchies and structures. We see this reflected in almost every major form of software you care to examine. From process workflows that manage order to cash, through problem resolution in the call center and out to procurement. We have baked those relationships into the structure and organization of everything we see as providing the means of operating successful businesses.
Utopian visions of social media rapidly overcoming well-established corporate power arrangements are nonsense. Dennis continues:
[Some people think that] all of a sudden, business leaders [will] forget everything they know, accept that structures can and will be subverted but that it will all be OK because people will naturally want to collaborate to get things done. This is a fundamentally incorrect assumption.
I chuckle when reading this statement, because it accurately represents the naive perspective of certain social media practitioners and software designers who possess little enterprise experience. The notion that these enlightened technology leaders will somehow storm the enterprise gates, releasing an imprisoned populace amid throngs and cheers, is laughable.
Social media will succeed on a large scale when its adherents fully understand enterprise software purchasing goals and politics. The set of issues surrounding enterprise software purchases is complex, to the extent that a product's ability to solve a particular business problem is often only one element in a larger decision matrix that includes reliability, security, performance, and so on. Contrast this to consumer software purchasing decisions, where the sole criteria are usually features and price.
The enterprise is more complex than many social media junkies recognize. For now, those who truly understand traditional enterprise dynamics will drive successful, large-scale social media adoptions. For the arrogant remainder, who innocently believe they know best, failure is likely.