The poverty of enterprise 2.0 and social media

Over the last few months I've been listening with growing alarm at the claims made for enterprise 2.0 and social media.
Written by Dennis Howlett, Contributor

Over the last few months I've been listening with growing alarm at the claims made for enterprise 2.0 and social media. Or rather the lack of claims coupled to an incredible amount of posturing. What concerns me greatly is that in the mad rush to all things X2.0, we seem to have lost sight of past failures which continue to provide Mike Krigsman with a rich seam of lurid tales while failing to define exactly what we need to address in this context.

Most CXO's I know, who represent a cross-section of businesses both large and small, have concerns other than E2.0 and social media. Now that the consumer facing social media style stories are emerging, CXO's are starting to pay attention to what this might mean for sales and marketing effectiveness. That's a good thing. But the moment that equation is turned inward, the mood goes dark.

CXO's instinctively know that internal collaboration, whether through rudimentary technologies like blogs and wikis hold significant efficiency promise. They know the technology is relatively inexpensive compared to other types of enterprise technology and that implementation can be rapid. They also get that in the longer term, these technologies could hold incredible promise for business effectiveness across their entire value chain lies in releasing huge amounts of resource back into the business. None of that is disputed. What is disputed are two things, social media and social networking as applied internally. Why?

Brian Solis, who describes himself as "among the original thought leaders who paved the way for Social Media," recently opined:

Social media is about sociology and the understanding that with the new social tools available to us, we can more effectively observe the cultures of online communities and listen to and respond directly to people within the communities.

He then goes on to use the definition of sociology found at the top of Answers.com:

The study of human social behavior, especially the study of the origins, organization, institutions, and development of human society.

Whenever building an argument, you always look for definitions which are going to support your thesis. In the context of external marketing, Brian's definitional choice may work well. Internally, it is meaningless. When I majored sociology, the topic was defined as:

The study of inequality as culturally and politically located in society

We reviewed that definition primarily through the twin lenses of health and poverty but also through feminist thinking. My second major was psychology and my speciality was abnormal psychology. Some people like to think of it as deviance. Again, this was located politically and culturally as a way of tying the two topics together.

In the context of 'social' anything, these are incredibly important concepts because what we're really talking about are power relationships. 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 mange 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. Then all of a sudden, business leaders are asked to 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.

Although I don't agree with everything he says, Mike Gotta has done some excellent work in examining some of the detail surrounding the dynamics that might be at play when considering how collaboration and social networks do (or do not) work. Most recently, he offered this insight:

One of the greatest challenges facing an organization is knowing under what circumstances a social network site is insufficient. Social dynamics are very complex and not always addressed by technology-centric tactics. While a dedicated site can help an enterprise benefit from social networks, there are other credible approaches to facilitate social networking.

  • One example would be a collection of social networking services that are contextually integrated within a variety of applications (reducing or eliminating the need to rely on any single destination)
  • Another example would be a social network service that analyzes and correlates situational information (e.g., activity, location) to make participants aware of each other or aware of other relevant circumstances (reducing or eliminating the need to rely on pre-defined relationship connections).

To effectively leverage social networks, organizations should understand how structural relations and interaction patterns affect the perceptions, beliefs and actions of their participants.

Organizations literate in social network analysis will demonstrate better governance practices concerning the role and application of technology. Such analytical methods can also influence management strategies by providing business decision-makers with valuable insight.

These are tremendously lucid insights and I would encourage anyone considering the application of social computing in their organization to seek Mike out and get his thoughts. I have one huge caveat that spins back to what I was saying about power relationships, the understanding of the social and the psychology at play in all of this.

Most of the current thinking that informs ideas around how to make collaboration work in the social context and the development of supporting tools, products and services have been built by vendors populated by people who are natural libertarians, free thinkers and broad believers in a sometimes fuzzy but discernible sense of equality. Robert Scoble springs to mind with his declaration that he wants his life to be an open book. James Governor and his thoughts on declarative living is another. But that's not in the DNA of most management. Neither is it in the DNA of the people who work for these companies and have picked up the scent of what it means to survive and thrive in corporate life. To illustrate the point Dion Hinchcliffe Tweeted:

What's evidence that a F500/G2000 company understands the new edge of the network & 2.0? When their management starts surfacing on Twitter?

My response was when the DNA changes. Dion replied:

Yes, that's it, isn't it? The DNA problem. Only when they can retrovirally adapt to new business models will make it. Many won't.

While the benefits of collaboration may be blindingly obvious and the path laid out on a platter, it is only by first understanding the absolute requirement for top down, wholesale DNA change that you stand a hope in hell of making these technologies work within the enterprise. How might this be encouraged?

The example of Sun is often cited but I believe that is a special case. There is a certain set of dynamics operating among geeks that makes them different to most others inside the organization. What has happened at Sun cannot be used as an exemplar for what is needed inside the vast majority of other organizations. I do however accept that some broad policy principles can be drawn. I'm thinking a lot deeper than that.

I make no apology for picking out Sam Lawrence, Jive Software's CMO of whom I have frequently written. He is one of the very few and best thinkers in this field who has surfaced ideas that make sense outside the geek community. Once again, I'd encourage readers to seek out Sam. What makes Sam's work interesting is the creativity that he recounts and encourages. Rather than repeat the latest story, I'll simply point to the provocatively titled Don't pee in the pool post which sets out some of the tactics a client operated to implement his company's solution. There is a clear and perceptible difference in the DNA structure of Sam's customer and 'the rest.' That has informed their imaginative approach to the project. How they got there isn't explained but I have thoughts about how this might be achieved which are for another time.

What I will say is this. All the internal marketing efforts currently being expended will not do it. Neither will the application of liberal doses of FUD. Don't wait upon the next generation because they won't do it for you, despite what some pundits might think. You can absolutely forget the latest shiny new object coming out of the fertile imaginations of most (not all) Silicon Valley development shops. Leave that to the consumer obsessed. Which includes Twitter; as currently iterated and (probably) Facebook.

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