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Why isn’t social software spreading like wildfire through business?

Andrew McAfee asked a deceptively simple question to a panel at Enterprise 2.0 last week, “If Enterprise 2.0 tools and approaches really are so beneficial and powerful, why haven’t they spread like wildfire?” He was surprised that no one fingered management as the culprits.

In their initial responses all of them identified users, not bad managers or inadequate technologies, as the biggest barriers to faster and deeper adoption of Enterprise 2.0. Entrenched practices and mindsets, some degree of technophobia, busyness, and the 9X Problem of email as an incumbent technology combine, they said, to limit the pace of adoption. These factors slow the migration from channels to platforms and necessitate continued patience, evangelism, and training and coaching.

I didn’t expect the panelists to say that the Enterprise 2.0 tooklit is so incomplete as to hinder adoption, but I was a bit surprised that none of them identified management as a real impediment in their first round of comments. So I pressed the point by saying something like “I didn’t hear any of you point the finger at the managers in your organizations. Were you just being polite, or are they really not getting in the way of Enterprise 2.0? The new social software platforms are a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare because they remove his ability to filter information, or control its flow. I’d expect, then, that each of you would have some examples of managers overtly or covertly trying to stop the spread and use of these tools. Are you telling me this hasn’t happened?”

That is in fact what they were telling me, and I didn’t get the impression that they were just being diplomatic. They said that managers were just another category of users that needed to migrate over to new ways of working, and not anything more. In other words, the panelists hadn’t seen managers in their organizations actively trying to impede Enterprise 2.0.

I think the issue is far more complex than a simple “Is it the management?”. The IT department, for example, has become a common source of no, and issues around legal and compliance can scare people off. But management exert a strong and inescapable influence on how well social media is adopted in business.

Firstly, I have indeed come across managers who have refused point blank to use social software, who have actively campaigned against its use and have told their teams that they are not to use it. Whilst managers that vocal are rare, they do exist.

I have also seen managers who have damned the tools with faint praise, ostensibly supporting their use, but undermining them by planting seeds of doubt about things like how safe the data is or how long the tools will be around. These people talk up the tools in meetings, but never actually use them, so they give off mixed messages to their teams who then feel uncertain about what they should and shouldn’t do. If someone feels uncertain about a new tool, the chances are that they will avoid it or will interact with it only half-heartedly. This damages adoption just a surely as open hostility and is much more common.

More insidious – and much more common – are the indifferent managers. They are not vocal, and maybe not even all that negative about social media; they just aren’t interested in it. They may show up for coaching sessions, but they won’t bother using the tools, and they won’t encourage any of their team to use them either. They won’t complain, they’ll just ignore what they don’t want to engage with.

Now, in some ways these people are just “users” who need to be persuaded of value of using social tools, but to describe them that simply is to miss the point – managers have a subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) power to either encourage or discourage their teams to behave in a certain way. They set the culture in their team, and the adoption of social media is about culture and behaviours rather than technology.

Managers who show disinterest are broadcasting a message to their team that new tools are of no value, and so they will dampen interest amongst people who actually are keen to learn and use new software, even to the point of stopping that person going to a training session or using the tool for their own work. This kills off grassroots adoption in a very quiet, subtle, almost unnoticeable way. You won’t here these people complaining. You won’t hear them talk about social software at all, but they can have a powerful effect on the success of a new tool.

But the main way that managers hobble the adoption of social tools is through simply not thinking it through, not considering what they are doing and why. They don’t provide the right sort of coaching or support, and then they wonder why people aren’t using the tools. They chuck up some blogs or wikis and hope that ‘nature will take its course’ and that people will just see the light and start using them. That, of course, doesn’t happen because not everyone has the time or the inclination to investigate new tools.

Once the early adopters – the people who are naturally curious and experimental – have discovered and started using social software, growth slows because just as in tech product marketing, there is a chasm between early adopters and the mainstream user than needs to be deliberately bridged. Businesses who have not thought about how to bridge this gap will find that adoption slows, stops, and then sometimes starts to contract. (Particularly if your key evangelists leave.)

Why doesn’t social media spread like wildfire in business? Because few people provide the tinder for a spark to ignite. Disinterested managers act like firebreaks, hostile managers act like rain, and managers giving off mixed messages act like firefighters pouring water on otherwise susceptible land. If you want a wildfire, the conditions have to be right for it to burn, which means thinking harder about what you’re doing.

Suw is holding a seminar on the adoption of social tools in business on June 27 2008. Deadline to sign up is June 25.