Report: Enterprises Struggle to Adopt Social Networking Internally

While the promise of implementing social networking applications for internal collaboration in the enterprise remains appealing, a recent Burton report says many hurdles remain. The problem might be more cultural than technological.

While consumer social networks like Facebook and Twitter continue to garner significant attention from Web consumers and the marketing departments who want to reach them, the attempts to replicate these technologies for internal communications and employee collaboration remains nascent, according to a recent Burton report.

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The conclusions of the report, entitled social networking in the enterprise, was based on interviews with 21 enterprises in a variety of industries, including consumer goods, finance, technology and utilities.

It comes just a couple months before the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston, a gathering of technology vendors that have created social applications similar in design to Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia, but tailored for business use. The Enteprise 2.0 market includes vendors that have started whole businesses around social software, such as Socialtext, Jive, and Six Apart, as well as old players like IBM and Microsoft that have added social features into their product lines with Lotus Connections and SharePoint, respectively.

But the products being sold by those companies may not be the problem for enterprise social networking adoption, says Mike Gotta, a principal analyst at Burton Group. Instead, the challenge rests in addressing cultural barriers. Some workers, particularly Baby Boomers, might not feel the same predisposition to the technologies in the enterprise (even though they're gravitating towards them in the consumer space, especially with Facebook).

Part of their hesitation might be a lack of clarity by their companies in defining the purpose of an enterprise social network. Many companies have used them to help people share their expertise and connect with others, especially in large, geographically dispersed organizations.

"Some vendors are saying employees will go in and naturally fill these enterprise social networking profiles out, but I don't think that's necessarily true," Gotta says. "If you're an employee, you have questions. Why should you maintain it? What are you going to do with it? Those questions still need to answered."

Some of the other challenges organizations face?

  • Creating a business case is difficult for people who don't understand the technologies or have rigid ways of defining their success. Your CFO might want hard ROI, which social tools have a difficult time showing because they aren't necessarily replacement tools. So, for instance, if people begin trading information on a wiki, that maintains a document's changes in real-time. This is generally better than sending around reply-all e-mails with messy attachments. But while you know the wiki has helped your collaboration efforts, it might be hard to figure an exact dollar amount in savings since e-mail isn't being replaced. "For that person that who wants blood on paper ROI , it's a hard conversation," Gotta says.
  • Getting the proper players involved. Gotta says it's essential to have a presence from HR in getting these technologies off the ground. If, for instance, you want to turn your corporate intranet into a social network with employee profile pages, you need to help people feel comfortable to share and know the ground rules. If people feel awkward about inputting information, it's as good as dead. In addition, stakeholders (often department heads) must show they believe in the adoption of the technology by using it themselves and encouraging adoption. If they use it, it's not guaranteed their employees will use it, but it's more likely.
  • Traditional corporate communications structures and etiquette. More old, conservative organizations communicate in a top-down fashion, which runs counter to social networks, where people collectively weigh in and discuss issues. Burton quoted one participant who noted the following: "We have a classic company — we communicate 'at' people rather than 'with' them." On the upside, the proponents of enterprise social networking say that the technologies, if used effectively, can uproot that type of communications model.
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