Businesses will live to regret their social media ignorance

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how social media sites are now the more popular than, and even replacing, email. Earlier in March, a Nielsen survey found that 67% of people going online spent time on social networks and blogs. Now a presentation at South by SouthWest has posited how social tools such as Facebook, Yammer, Twitter and Friendfeed are replacing email.

I have no doubt that both reports are true and the wide media coverage of both should be a warning shot across the bows of business and, in particular, their IT departments. If CxOs don’t start to get a grip on the use of social media internally for communication and collaboration they are going to regret it.

Just think about what is actually going on here: Fed up with rubbish corporate email software and wanting to communicate quickly and effectively with their colleagues, people are turning to the tools that suit them the most. Or to put it another way,

People see email as damage and route around it.

This means that corporate communications are being had all over the place. And that means that your communications archives, which you might have to one day rely on in court, are scattered who knows where across the internet. This is something you really do not want to happen.

What’s the answer? Well, you can put your kneejerks away. The answer is not to summarily shut off access to Twitter and Facebook and the like. Remember that bit about routing round damage? People find ways to circumvent stupid IT policies, and you won’t find out until it’s too late. Using Ubuntu on a USB stick to circumvent idiotic IT decisions that prevent people from doing their job effectively and efficiently may be a minority sport at the moment, but it’s going to become a lot more common as it becomes easier and information on how to do it starts to circulate beyond the geek community.

If you want to stop your staff using Twitter to discuss hiring decisions and ensure that your corporate communications information is safe on your own server, where it can be archived and searched, you need to install Web 2.0 services yourself. Now. This is not a time for the Great Race to be Second, this is a time to look very seriously at the ramifications of not enabling your staff to work the way that they want to.

At the very minimum, you need to give your staff these tools:

  • Wiki
  • Instant messanger
  • Twitter-esque microconversation
  • RSS readers

And you need to make sure you know how communications using these tools are going to be logged, archived, and made searchable. Mostly, archiving (or logging) is built in, so it shouldn’t be that difficult. Cross-archive search might be a little bit more interesting, but it’s worth your while because more time is wasted in re-finding information than in finding it in the first place.

You also need to understand how these tools can be used to best effect, what their strengths and weaknesses are, how to communicate about them to your staff, and how to encourage adoption. How do they fit together as a suite? How can you encourage people to use them instead of the publicly available tools? What are the benefits? What do you do if someone, despite everything, does something silly publicly? Don’t guess at this stuff – do it properly. You’ve probably got expertise internally, somewhere. If not, hire it in. Carefully.

This discussion is no longer about things like return on investment, improving efficiency and productivity or encouraging corporate culture change. Whilst those are still important, I think we’ve crossed a threshold where installing social tools is actually the risk averse action to take, the safer route, the thing that helps prevent monumentally stupid communications fuck-ups.

Many IT departments, taking their network security responsibilities seriously, have secured their networks so tightly that they are no longer functional for the very people who need to use them. And those people now have options – they can go elsewhere, and they are going elsewhere. Let me put it another way:

People see IT restrictions as damage and route around them.

Routing around damage is getting easier and easier, so easy it will soon be mainstream. You cannot ignore this anymore. You can’t bury your head in the sand and say that Web 2.0 is for other people. You can’t blindly carry on using bloated corporate tools that drive your users to madness. Your users are smarter than that now, and they have been enabled. You either get to grips with the tools that people actually want to use to communicate, you provide them with what they need to do their jobs, you transform your IT department into an enabling force for good, or…

Can you actually afford to risk finding out what “or” might mean? Peter Horrocks accidentally Tweeted BBC promotions. What if it had been firings? What if his entire direct message archive was accidentally made public by a third party tool? What if one of the external tools your staff are using suddenly changes the way that it works, thus revealing things that were assumed to be hidden?

Trust me on this, if nothing else. You aren’t going to like “or” very much at all, and you’ll be much better off if you take social software seriously.

11 thoughts on “Businesses will live to regret their social media ignorance

  1. Great post Suw, couldn’t agree more. Whenever I do any teaching or workshops about social media useage the issues people always surface are colleagues friending them and them being embarassed about personal materials being viewable by colleagues. This for me is just a flag that corporations are deeply asocial in their IT despite their users.

    They’re also missing out on the natural power of influence and social proof within organisations to surface hidden talents and connections. They’re also missing a trick onget people reading the information they want them to read but have trouble in getting them to read as it feels broadcasty rather than conversational.

    Why not make intranets social, surface all of people’s activities in document stores (a la Last.fm) and allow people to follow each other?

  2. I’ve been lucky to never work anywhere so brain-damaged, having mainly freelanced or worked for small startups in my time – but I hear plenty of horror stories…

    For organisations I’ve had the luck to set up or take over the running og, I’ve always made a wiki, and it’s been invaluable. In two cases I’ve replaced a “Drive S: For Shared Stuff” setup – with things misfiled all over, or written in formats that only certain people can read/write, hard to search, and often very out of date – and never looked back. Not once!

    My current dayjob involves a lot of people working from home, so we have an IRC channel to emulate those “water-cooler” discussions, which helps to keep everyone working as a cohesive whole, too. It’s frequented by the people working “at the chalk face”, while the management team just nab us individually via IM to talk about stuff, which is a pattern I’ve been meaning to analyse from a sociological perspective some day. The board love the wiki, though – we track tickets in it (it’s Trac), so they can go and look at overall status and progress whenever they want.

    It always amazes me that some organisations fear such communications technologies… I dread to think what the costs of doing it any other way would be!

  3. I’m wary of Wikis, only because they can be so polarizing. People who love them, love them. People who aren’t familiar with them find them strange and confusing and don’t want to learn a new markup language, and never go back. That’s why we’re so big on Sharepoint at SAS.

    I think of it as analogous to car transmissions; I like driving a manual transmission, but I don’t expect to find one at a rental agency.

  4. Dave, not all wikis are confusing and require mark-up, and how they are recieved depends a lot on which software is being used, and how it is introduced. I’ve had a lot of success with wikis, particularly Socialtext, as it’s very easy to use and very useful indeed.

    As regards Sharepoint… *sigh* Sharepoint is a very poor substitue for true social media.

  5. I liked this post so much that I have created a post about it on my site masterthenewnet.com trying to summarize the most important points. Communications, when all is said in done, begins and ends INSIDE the corporation. If a company is flirting with social media for its conusmers, it must first implement social media for its employees. IT departments and companies as a whole have to wake up and realize that people are people and the social media furor is not a fad but an answer to what people have been searching for a long long time–more openness, more transparency and more dialogue. E-mail, while a revolution in its own time, has now been overtaken by social media. The old formulas are no longer adequate. I guess my question is why are companies so afraid?

  6. An excellent post…hopefully the quicker these tools are installed inside the enterprise then the quicker people will learn how to use them properly. Microblogging internally against your own name would probably make you more thoughtful of your posted messages and this should translate to how you use these tools outside of work.

    I would love to here your thoughts on ‘*sigh* Sharepoint’ 😉

  7. The web site above is my blog…not nearly as well done as yours Suw, but my most recent post (http://bit.ly/HXXx) is in the spirit of what you’ve written here. I hope you’ll read and enjoy.

    I’m also following you on Twitter now.

    Cheers!

    Lee

  8. We’ve got the Wiki, Instant messanger and RSS readers, not from any plan for social media, but just because it’s obviously the right thing to do. Microblogging isn’t there yet, with an IM multi-user conference instead for now. Not sure whether it’s worth running an OpenMicroBlogging server yet. Do you have one yet?

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