The current issue of The Economist (Jan 30, 2010) includes a special report on social networking. In it they present a well-researched and written (as usual) series of articles covering this latest phenomenon’s arc across the business and social landscape.
As a verbal marketer I was particularly interested to see what they had to say about the degree to which business is embracing social networking tools, and how they are using them internally to foster or support employee productivity. As usual, they did not disappoint.
One article, “Yammering away at the office,” examined the “astonishing amount of time being wasted on investigating the amount of time being wasted on social networks.” It turns out that one research firm concluded that an outright ban of Facebook use in American companies would improve workplace productivity by 1.5%. Confidence intervals, anyone?
The article goes on to cite the benefits social networking offers to knowledge workers in terms of finding information needed to do their jobs, as well as the work arounds they can easily resort to if they find themselves working for a company that discourages such practices.
On the main the tenor of the article is quite supportive of the business use of social networking tools “inside the firewall”. And this is where I think things can get interesting, if not challenging.
First,there is a question of what to use E2.0 applications and tools for, or even whether such a prescription should be made. Consider the promise of groupware applications like Lotus Notes. The brand promise was that enterprise-wide deployments of groupware would foster, indeed create, enterprise-wide collaboration. Unfortunately this was not the case and ultimately many large Notes deployments devolved into being used solely for email, and then, due to their uncompetitive cost structure, being ripped out and replaced with a competitor’s software.
E2.0 apps like Yammer are not quite analagous on this front – they function as promised right out of the box, unlike Notes which turned out to be more of an application development environment. On the other hand, for companies with thousands of employees performing a complex assortment of jobs and tasks, it may not be immediately clear which group would benefit most from E2.0 apps, nor which apps in particular.
Then there is the cultural dimension. Even if a likely group is identified for an E2.0 pilot rollout there is no guarantee that the deployed tools will be used for their anticipated purposes, or at all.
And maybe this is where a shift in thinking would be helpful. Maybe rather than spend too much time and handwringing trying to minimize the risk of failure of an E2.0 pilot firms need to simply trust their instincts on whether it is the type of application for them, and if it is, roll it out and see what happens.
This would require that a firm’s leaders ignore all the hype and casual chatter about how great E2.0 is. It would require them to look at their businesses as objectively as possible and evaluate whether there are any obvious areas where E2.0 functionality could feasibly support the work being done there. And to also evaluate whether their culture is one that has the level of trust and open communication upon which the widespread uptake and use of these systems is so dependent.