by Chris Howard

Tips for Social Computing in the Enterprise

Apr 08, 20087 mins
Collaboration SoftwareSmall and Medium Business

Implementing Web 2.0 tools can lead to better collaboration and productivity at your business, higher levels of employee engagement. The tools also can help you attract the next generation of workers. These tips can help you get started--and also get out of the way.

Innovative communication techniques grouped together and interchangeably labeled social computing, social software, social media, Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 (E2.0), need to shape the way companies do business. (For more, see An Introduction to Web 2.0 and Web 2.0 Crucial to New Information Workplace.)

Senior managers who learn to let E2.0 concepts have a life of their own will benefit from enhanced knowledge sharing and stronger communities within their companies. These communities reinforce interactions within work groups and support collaboration and innovation.

Benefits for the Enterprise

Increased Collaboration

People form communities based on shared interests. Once the community is in place, it becomes a greenhouse for the development of ideas and the distribution of information, attracting all those who wish to participate.

The collaborative exchange of ideas is essential to the success of difficult initiatives, including software architecture and design, project management and organizational transformation. Tools such as social networking sites, discussion groups and wikis enable people to connect with one another virtually while enhancing and extending face-to-face interaction. Using these tools, traditional hierarchies and structures in the company move into the background as the community emerges, removing many of the inhibitors of information exchange.

Companies are seeing improved collaboration surrounding creation of user groups (around development languages) and complex design (in globally distributed teams). In each case, participants from otherwise isolated parts of the company share problems and solutions, reducing redundancy and increasing common functionality.

Enhanced Innovation

Peter Drucker writes extensively about innovation as a subtle reexamination of context rather than mountaintop epiphanies. Most companies that take an innovative turn spot something—an opportunity—that offers a natural extension of the status quo.

Chris Zook recommends searching for “undeveloped adjacencies,” or unexploited capabilities in the organization that can be developed into new, repeatable processes. Successful corporate innovation capitalizes on existing assets and ideas combined in new ways. Use of social computing creates a new stage for innovation, where ideas are more easily exposed and patterns spotted. As communities work out the kinks of new ideas in public forums, innovative thinking coalesces and ownership/leadership emerges. Amazon uses social computing (especially wikis) extensively in the development of new features for Virtual teams form around seeds of ideas, take ownership and drive the idea into a product enhancement.

Increased Productivity

Increased productivity is usually the result of more efficient access to correct information. This reduces the time needed during discovery phases and troubleshooting. For software development, access to shared solutions and knowledgeable people speeds time to delivery. For call-center environments, the ability to find information and communicate in real time with coworkers shortens call time. For design scenarios, collaborative work on shared artifacts accelerates the early stages of a project and simplifies future iterations.

In all scenarios, the collective intelligence of the community leads to answers more quickly. As more questions are answered, repeatability increases. As new workers enter the company, there is a baseline of knowledge to get them ramped up more effectively. Much of that knowledge is available as content within the social computing infrastructure.

Improved Employee Relations and Engagement

An employee who happily engages with their coworkers and the company is usually a great thing. They have a lower rate of attrition, are generally more productive and have a better sense of the overall objectives of the company. Social computing allows employees to connect more easily with one another and with the corporation as a whole. Shared connections also enhance face-to-face interactions and the sense of belonging to the wider corporate community. New friendships emerge, common interests are identified and cohesion increases as users interact with one another around similar goals. Social networks, blogs and wikis create a forum for the voice of the employee to be heard and for their ideas to be validated. They have the ability to directly influence decisions within the organization, and their level of engagement increases.

Attracting and Keeping Younger Workers

Much has been made of the need to update enterprise technology to attract younger workers. These workers carry expectations of highly interactive, mobile and ubiquitous computing into the workplace. It’s how they interact with the world, and they have become highly productive (and a bit distracted) by it. These people expect high interpersonal connectivity and create solutions to problems from fragments of interaction.

It’s not just about younger workers, though. Although that demographic has more time to experiment and, as a result, build facility more quickly, people of all ages have experience with a broad range of social computing devices and applications. Recent studies at Stanford’s Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) lab suggest that adaptability has more to do with new cognitive types that are not age-specific. Humans are highly efficient parallel processors, even though most of our information worker applications force them into a narrow box. The challenge for IT departments is to design applications that take advantage of these human capabilities on top of an infrastructure that is strained to support them.

Promotion and Public Relations

Many companies are starting to use public-facing social computing as a means of projecting brand. From executive blogs (such as Marriott’s and General Motors’) to consumer communities (such as Pepperidge Farm’s and Wells Fargo’s), companies are trying their hand at increasing customer loyalty in innovative ways. This is tricky if not done carefully, though. An executive blog that is obviously written by the PR department will alienate people. Forced “community” experiences will immediately feel artificial or opportunistic.

In the case of Pepperidge Farm, their well-crafted “Connections” initiative targets a specific demographic (professional women with homemaker sensibilities) and builds on a theme of friendship. The connection to the company’s product is tangential: Obviously, a selection of Pepperidge Farm goodies would be a natural addition to a gathering of friends. Rather than build in any social computing functionality to their site, Pepperidge Farm suggests ways to use some of the most common applications (photo sharing, blogging) to connect with friends.

Other companies are creating a presence for themselves using social networking sites like, which have also proven to be a fertile ground for political candidates and musicians to get their message out.

Managing the Social Organization

Observing Without Disturbing

The attraction of social computing is also its challenge. It thrives because it is highly participatory, self-defining, self-directing, emergent and viral. It does not grow along a prescribed axis. Communities form around seeds of ideas that grow over time into larger patterns. If a group senses that it is being observed (and relied upon for output), there is the danger that interactions will become too self-conscious.

Use of social computing cannot be mandated; it must simply be facilitated. Once the mechanics are in place to support social computing, the content produced through user interaction is treated like other content in the organization. It must be indexed and searchable, making it easy for users to discover information and engage with it. Reasonable arm’s length policies regarding content and style will also allow the voice of the group to reach equilibrium on its own. In order to achieve the best results, enterprise social computing must retain the perceived freedom of the Web.

Provide Executive Leadership, But Stay out of the Way

CIOs are responsible for making sure that the corporate environment supports the paradigm shifts accompanying E2.0. They are responsible for infrastructure investments that constitute the E2.0 platform. They must establish standards and enforce boundaries when required. They may even take part in the communities as they emerge. But CIOs must also realize that their direct presence in those communities can have a muting effect (the celebrity factor).

One way for senior executives to be effectively engaged with E2.0 is to keep active blogs of their own. This will provide IT staff with valuable insights into their leadership. At the end of the day, CIOs set strategic directions that are “worked out” in the E2.0 communities populated by their employees.

Chris Howard is vice president and director of the Executive Advisory Program at the Burton Group. He is a former university professor with more that 16 years of IT consulting experience.