Clay Shirky: Social networking will change business like PC, laptop, email

NYU prof Clay Shirky said that it will fall to the IT department to make social networking strategic---just like the PC, laptop and email.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Social media is being brought into the corporate world and information technology departments will have figure out how to make it strategically important to their companies, said Clay Shirky, a NYC professor, consultant, author and watcher of Internet trends.

Shirky, speaking at the Gartner Symposium in Orlando Sunday, addressed a room full of tech executives and said he didn't want to tell CIOs how to do their jobs, but did scare the hell out of them enough for them to take the hint that they need to get social pronto.

Instead of preaching the merits of social media to business---Shirky has a bevy of funny anecdotes---the NYU professor put Facebook, Twitter and other tools in historical context. Shirky's take: Consumerization has been going on forever and IT departments everywhere have made technologies useful to business.

Shirky set up his history lesson noting that access to information has now been democratized. Now people form networks and share information everywhere. Social networking is a cultural change that will affect IT. The bright side is that technology execs have seen these drastic changes before.

"For the IT department these changes are familiar," explained Shirky. "The change brought about by social media for business is like when the PC came to the enterprise in the 1990s. The PC came to the enterprise because the accountants hated the mainframe guys. Instead of going down the hall for a batch job, they brought in PCs, Lotus and VisiCalc."

He continued and noted that the laptop didn't make it to the enterprise because some C-level execs thought it was a great idea to take their PCs home in a bag. Road warriors demanded laptops.

Email? "If you asked any business in the middle of the 1990s about email you'd get something between 'we're thinking about it' and 'what is it?'" What changed? Enterprises noted that AOL email addresses were being put on business cards.

Today, there's the hardware and software integration trend ushered in by Apple and all of those iPads consumers are bringing to work.

Shirky's message is that social media isn't all that different. Workers are bringing Facebook and Twitter to work because they need better collaboration tools. And the longer it takes for enterprises to get social media the harder it is to make it strategic. Shirky warned that businesses can't dismiss social networking as something frivolous. The reality is that social media just hasn't been pressed into more serious duty yet.

"Social media is being dragged into the business environment right now," said Shirky. "It will fall to the IT department---like it always does---to render these social threats and opportunities into something strategic."

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