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Why Social Networks Inside Businesses Have Failed (And What We Can Do About Fixing It)

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Editor’s note: Software companies talk to their customers about collaboration, but do they deliver it in their own operations? Historically, most have focused heavily on the concept of small teams and everybody getting into a room and solving issues. Collaboration was real time, face-to-face and ad hoc. But the exigencies of today’s market, the market opportunity, and how software has matured creates interesting scenarios. Sandhill.com asked Ram Menon, EVP at TIBCO to share his opinion on social sprawl and what companies need to evaluate to block out the noise and start getting down to business.

The Sunday night we all learned Osama bin Laden had been killed, I was playing a quiet game of chess with my 10-year-old son. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I picked it up to see a Facebook message from my neighbor, who first informed me of the news. As I waited for my son to make his next move, I watched a flood of information wash over me via Facebook and Twitter messages shared by friends.

For me, this served as another quintessential example of how social technologies have transformed the way we communicate and consume information. Not too many years ago, I would have had to be watching television or listening to the radio to learn news of a similar magnitude in real time. Now, I simply let the information flow to my fingertips.

So, when you come to work, you probably hear some say, “You should replicate Facebook inside of your company. It’s the new wave! It’s the revolution that will automatically transform your business!”

It all sounds nice. The problem is it’s a farce.

The truth is, early attempts to bring social networking inside companies as a work tool have failed. They have failed because they lack a pragmatic focus on the business process, systems, and culture that actually makes companies operate (and make money). Free social computing tools – which almost gleefully don’t understand the needs of businesses – fall on their face after a few months of use because people don’t actually get their work done in them. They’re the proverbial “extra thing I gotta check.” And if they’re not working in them, why log in anymore?

Business is about more than people; machines matter, too

“Social” networks, at their core, are based on the concept of connecting people. Whether it’s friends, co-workers, or family, social networks enable you to have an ambient awareness of the relevant people around you. This has immediate usefulness for large businesses since employees waste precious hours each week looking for the colleague they need to solve a business problem or innovate on a new product.

But in the end, connecting people is the easy part. The larger issue is finding a way to serve up relevant, system-generated information, in real time, which will allow people more streamlined execution on key business processes.

For example, if you’re an inventory manager at a large company, you need to know (in real time) that stock levels of your best-selling product have plummeted during the past several hours. If you’re off talking with colleagues in a standalone social network that your intern signed the company up for a couple months ago, you’re wasting precious time – and you’ll be left with some disappointed customers.

Don’t go out with the old; make the old better

In all the exuberance surrounding social technologies, we forget people don’t change overnight. While these applications have revolutionized the way we carry out virtual, real-time communication, people still possess a need for live conversation and interaction. Unfortunately, most social platforms have ignored the unified communication tools like IM, video, audio and Web conferencing that people have relied on for years, relegating them as old or irrelevant tools.

This is a mistake.

We should marry the experience of unified communications with social technologies to make them both more useful. In doing so, we can reduce the friction necessary to shift from purely digital communication to a live one (i.e., move from a status message with a sequence of replies to a live video conference). Having those live conversations spin out from the context of your social computing environment will make for more productive, meaningful conversations when you do talk live.

The enterprise has secrets it wants to keep

Another issue with today’s business social networks is the confidence to share, and knowing what’s appropriate to share. With most of the tools out there today, you probably don’t have any confidence. Facebook has become pervasive enough that many companies have at least crafted social media policies warning their employees about what they can and can’t share about the company on Facebook. But in the end, much of it is left to “good judgment” and common sense.

Meanwhile, business social networks that people sign up for outside the purview of their IT departments are a whole other nightmare. The notion that you would upload an Excel file with your latest sales numbers or competitive intelligence to one of these systems – where the end user owns and controls the data – is enough to make any chief information officer’s head roll. Contrary to popular belief, CIOs might like the idea of social technologies fine inside the business – it’s just that, from where they stand, it can’t be done that way.

A CIO needs to ensure that people can share information with as big or small a group as they need, and that they are confident that they are sharing the right information with the right people. Today, no one has that confidence. So when it comes to their business social network, they share what they ate for lunch or what’s on today’s cafeteria menu.

Looking beyond an end-user level, the question of where the data shared on these social networks actually lives raises more concerns about security. While some companies hype up “the cloud,” many organizations in finance, government and health care (to name a few) simply can’t have this data sit beyond their firewall. The cloud religion that has pervaded our day-to-day lives has been a major barrier to social technologies taking off inside businesses.

Social sprawl – it’s already here

Think about it – we have consumer tools like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, where we can’t share valuable business information; then we have free business social collaboration tools that lack any kind of real security. But we also have another entrant: business software vendors that are simply tacking social features onto their old departmental applications and calling it “Facebook for the enterprise!” with a lot of marketing hot air about the end of org charts as we know it.

In total, this is creating social sprawl inside a company. A social network here, a social network there. Eventually – and very ironically – these networks create more information silos inside your company. They wall people off from relevant systems, people, and data; they don’t bring them closer together.

And that is the challenge we have with harnessing these powerful technology tools inside the enterprise. We need to combine the powerful ability to connect people (as we’ve enjoyed in our consumer lives) with the ability to act on key business processes that enable our companies to grow and win in today’s market. In an ideal scenario, that inventory manager I mentioned has an update flow into his business activity stream that says, “Popular product near depleted. Refill?”

As he struggles to figure out where to fill it from, a colleague in the Shanghai office writes a reply in the context of the update, “John, we have more coming in this afternoon. Want me to shift more to LA?”

At work, social technologies will become like email: we once thought it would be a nice-to-have; now we don’t know how we lived without it. But the notion that we can just copy Facebook and everything will fall into place is a counterproductive approach. Businesses have critical data, investments, and people to empower. In the end, enterprise social computing needs to recognize this and respond to the needs of real businesses.

Ram Menon is Executive Vice President at TIBCO, where he is responsible for Product Strategy, Product Management, Product Marketing, Field Marketing, Corporate Communications, Branding and Customer Programs worldwide. Prior to this role, he served as the Chief Strategist of the company, responsible for defining and executing corporate strategic initiatives, including new product strategy, M&A direction, and emerging vertical markets. Prior to joining TIBCO, Mr. Menon was with Accenture, where he specialized in supply chain and e-commerce strategy, consulting with Global 1000 companies.

Comments

By Greg

Ram, your commentary is spot on. Folks in corporate IT, Sales Ops, Marketing and other functions are falling over themselves trying to implement social networking technologies inside the company that at best underwhelm in terms of functionality, and at worst are the productivity drag that you cite in your piece. It’s a red herring, and will end up running its course. Enhancing what we have is the appropriate strategy… Thanks for this post…

By Prashanth

Ram, Connecting people in context of their business goals is important. Systems may play a role in it. By systems generated information, I suspect, you are referring to context.

By Gary Banks

I agree that unstructured chatter is not what large companies need or want. A few companies have managed to join structured BI and unstructured collaboration. One example: Decisyon.

By Ram Menon

Thanks for all the comments. I think if implemented well, social computing tools will be command line for the future of work. the single interface by which the employee can mange systems/processes and daily tasks to be more productive. But we have to go some ways before achieving that. – Ram Menon

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