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.

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