Are social networks in business a white elephant or is Gartner’s report a red herring?

Gartner have recently released a report, Three Potential Pitfalls of Corporate Social Networking by Brian Prentice, with the tagline “Investing in social networking solutions from enterprise vendors is no guarantee that users will embrace the technology.” I’ll probably never get to read it, as it’s a bit on the steep side – $195 for a four page report. Nice work if you can get it. Instead, I’m going to have to rely on Tim Ferguson’s article, Businesses warned: Don’t rush into Web 2.0.

Now, I know that at least one of my social media consultant friends thinks you should ignore Gartner, but I think they’re right… although for the wrong reasons.

Ferguson says:

Businesses are advised to consider certain issues before investing in or developing internal social-networking tools. These include protecting personal intellectual property, and people’s preference for using existing non-professional external networks such as Bebo, Facebook and MySpace.

[…]

But the Gartner report says the hype around social networking doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a mature enough technology to make it a critical business requirement.

There is also little evidence that social networking will be as beneficial for businesses as other web-based communications technology, such as instant messaging and VoIP.

Ultimately, Gartner suggests, the value of social-networking technology comes from content rather than the product itself.

So let’s just break this down a bit. It should be pretty self-evident that businesses should consider what they are doing and how before they install social software. We’ve seen with blogs and wikis that just flinging them up and hoping for the best doesn’t always work very well. Indeed, I get most of my business from companies who have tried social software in some way and have found that it doesn’t “just work”. It takes thought, consideration and the benefit of the experience of those who’ve actually done this sort of work (rather than just theorised about it).

I disagree, however, that personal intellectual property is an issue that companies need to focus on. Most intellectual property created by an employee is what’s called “work for hire” and is owned by the company, not the person. This is generally covered by the employee’s employment contract and has nothing to do at all with what software is installed or used.

The use of external non-professional social networks, such as Facebook, is also a red herring. Staff use Facebook for managing and maintaining professional networks – of both internal and external contacts – because it’s easy and it’s the social network du jour. A good internal social network would allow staff to move some activity off Facebook if they wanted, but it wouldn’t replace it, because if it’s internal then they can’t maintain their external contacts in it. This isn’t an either/or scenario, it’s all about “and”: you need internal and external social network tools.

The maturity of the technology is also irrelevant. If you have any more than 150 people in your company, then your employees are inevitably going to be missing out on some crucial internal professional relationships, because you just can’t maintain meaningful relationships with more than 150 people. That’s Dunbar’s number at work. If you want to be an effective business, you have to find a way for people to find those colleagues they need to work with – that is, in my opinion a critical business requirement.

Too much business time is wasted re-inventing the wheel. Social networking (done well) directly addresses that problem by providing a way for people to find or stumble upon those they need to know. The other half of that problem is cultural, and is about whether people are willing to share and ask questions and take risks by approaching a stranger for help and advice, but the maturity of the technology has nothing to do with that.

Gartner’s right is that there’s a lot of hype around social networks, and particularly Facebook. I hear far too often the refrain “Oh! We must have our own Facebook!” as people make the wild assumption that Facebooks success will translate directly into success for their own social network (internal or external). It won’t. Companies have to be careful not to leap on the Facebook bandwagon without first thinking about what it is that they want their social network to do.

But Gartner’s wrong to think that the sparsity of evidence for how social networking works in business is a problem. Businesses who are experimenting with social networks (and social tools in general) are tending towards keeping their experiences to themselves, but we are right at the beginning of a trend here, and lack of evidence is not a good reason not to investigate the possibilities.

And finally, Gartner states that the value of a social network is the content, and again, they miss the point. The content is very important, but the connections are what distinguish a social network from a broadcast network. Without those connections, there isn’t a network, there’s just lots of people creating content.

So, if Gartner can get it this wrong, why am I agreeing with them? Well, I think that businesses really do need to think about what they are doing before they invest in social networks. They need to understand how social networks work in an internal business environment, because it’s rather different to how they work on the web.

On the web, we find old friends, we send them phatic messages like a “poke” in Facebook, we gather connections, we maintain light-touch relationships with people that we might otherwise not bother staying in contact with, and we find new people with whom we have something in common. Successful social networks have a social object at the heart of their network: in Flickr the social object is the photo; in Last.fm it is music; in LinkedIn it is the curriculum vitae. What is it in business?

Anyone who’s been involved with centralised directories in business will tell you that people rarely keep their biographies up to date, they depend on someone else to update things like telephone numbers, and they provide little or no useful information on what skills someone has or what their area or interests are. Generally speaking, a profile page is not a compelling social object within business, and updating one is seen as a chore than can be indefinitely put off.

The sorts of activities in which people engage in business are also very different to those displayed in Facebook. I doubt many people would want to “poke” their boss, for example, or post photos of their big night out.

In my opinion, a business social network has to be very low-maintenance. It’d like to see something pulling in all my content and contributions, such as blog posts, wiki pages I’ve created, comments I’ve made, and websites and documents I’ve bookmarked. I’d like it to pull in any other feeds, authenticated or not, so I could add my external blog feed and anything else that I find interesting. I’d like the profile page to be the only one I need to maintain, so it would be automatically pulled into all other applications that have an “about me” page. And it’d like it to be taggable, not just by me but by my colleagues, so that they can decide how best to describe me. People never describe themselves as fully and accurately as a group of their friends and colleagues can. Clearly it would need search – keywords and tags – to let me find the people that I need to find. But the tags would also create ad hoc, fluid communities of interest, so I can serendipitously stumble upon others.

So my content becomes the social object and maintenance overhead is negligible. That’s the sort of network that might fly in a business setting where everyone is strapped for time and you don’t have the luxury of waiting a couple of years for the network effect to kick in. Instead you get immediate value because you’re pulling in information that I’m generating in the course of my daily work and there’s a lot of usefulness in pulling that together and making it (and therefore me) taggable and searchable.

One thing I’m wary of in a business setting is the idea of friends lists. I’d need to do a lot more thinking and research before I settle that issue to my satisfaction. There are two types of business hierarchy – explicit and hidden. Explicit hierarchies are ORG charts, staff lists, departments, teams. These are based on position as granted by the company, and are for some people important indicators of their own status and success. The are artificial, often semi-arbitrary, and frequently misleading.

The hidden hierarchies are really not hierarchies at all, but networks. This is who you know, who you bump into at the water cooler, who you met at the Christmas party, who your friends introduce you to, and, of course, who you work with. The hidden network is the one that helps you get your job done despite the official hierarchy getting in the way. It’s how you do an end run around that annoying boss who prefers to be obstructive rather than help. It’s how you get your computer fixed by that nice chap in IT in time to get that important presentation done, rather than raise a ticket and wait for an hour for someone to get back to you.

My worry is that exposing these hidden networks to the harsh light of the explicit hierarchy could kill them, or vital parts of them. In old-style command-and-control companies, the very fact that you know someone rather senior in another department may rankle with your boss in such a way that they start to work against you, and that would undermine the very fabric of the company. After all, a company isn’t a single entity at all, it is a group of people who have social relationships and who need some of those relationships to remain hidden.

With RSS readers, blogs, wiki ‘recent changes’ feeds and watchlists, many of the functions of a buddy list are covered – it would be easy enough to keep up with what everyone’s doing. And as people in business tend to steer well clear of obviously phatic communication, much of what Facebook enables becomes irrelevant. (This is not to say that there’s not a lot of phatic communication going on in business – there is, it’s just not as obvious.)

So yes, businesses do need to take a lot of care when considering how to implement social networks, and all other social tools. But they need to listen to people who’ve actually got experience working with social tools in business, whether those people are their own staff, from other companies, or consultants. Social media is so experiential that analysing it from an external perspective misses the point more often than it hits the nail on the head.