by C.G. Lynch

Why CIOs Must Embrace Social Software: A Conversation with Charlene Li of “Groundswell”

Apr 16, 20087 mins
Collaboration SoftwareConsumer ElectronicsSmall and Medium Business

Charlene Li, co-author of "Groundswell," a book on social software in the enterprise, says CIOs and business leaders must let go of a command-and-control mentality and allow for collaboration to spring up via the Web. n

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, two Forrester Research analysts, have a message for CIOs in their new book, “Groundswell,” about social technologies: you can’t control users looking to utilize Web 2.0 technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networks.

In fact, even trying to control these users is a foolish strategy. Instead, they argue, CIOs and other business leaders must embrace these technologies in the enterprise, and enable their employees to share and work collectively with each other to foster new innovations. In addition, CIOs must track the business benefits of using them.


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In an interview at Forrester’s Foster City, Calif. office south of San Francisco, Li chatted about the implications of the ideas in “Groundswell,” and what social networking means to IT leaders, their employees and customers.

CIO: So when you talked with CIOs about using social technologies while doing the research for this book, what was their reaction?

Li: Many were terrified. They had almost deer-in-the headlights reactions when it came to Web 2.0. I felt like I was describing an alien world to some companies. They looked at it with fascination, but also a lot of apprehension.

As a result, we wanted to write a book that, in one place, had all the frameworks and processes that a company would need to be able to not only understand and deal with Web 2.0, but also to thrive in it. In the book, we have data, case studies, recommendations and processes, but we wanted to give [readers] an idea of what the crucial business objectives of using Web 2.0 are, and what are the metrics they can use, to measure against it. We were very keen on using case studies that actually had a business objective behind it and that way we could measure it.

CIO: So a deer-in-the-headlights. What do they do when they realize they have to deal with these technologies? And how can they be open while protecting their company’s assets?

Li: When I talk to CIO’s, they’re often like, ‘how can I control this?’ My point back to them is you can’t. It’s like air. You can’t stop air from coming into your organization.

This is stuff that’s actually helping people get their jobs done. It’s often coming in the back door. So it comes down to what you see your role is as a CIO. Is it to control technology, to say who can use what? Or is to put technology in the hands of people so they can do their jobs better? You need to be really thinking about what business objective you want to achieve with these technologies.

Now, I had one CIO who said to me, “Then what’s my purpose in life?” Because he perceived that he would not be in control of budget or approving large enterprise applications and making sure they roll out to the organization.

Instead, I think you need to think about it as painting a box [for the business users]. You say here’s how big the box is that you need to be in. As long as you’re inside the box, you can do whatever you want. So the box would have one wall that’s about confidentiality. Another one would be authentication. Another one would be single sign-on or not single sign-on. Another one might be information architecture. So as long as you can work inside those parameters, go for it. I might even have a list of pre-approved software that’s already in compliance with all of this, so all you have to do is plug and play. But if you want to out and get other tools, go for it, but it’ll have to be within this box.

CIO: Often CIOs talk about security when it comes to Web 2.0. But is the real underlying issue that they’re not willing to part with investments in the traditional enterprise applications of the past?

Li: Everyone at the table has to realize those are sunk costs. To say you’re going to spend more money, time and resources, all to get something that’s not working for people, doesn’t make sense. So go back to the business objectives.

If your business objective is to drive efficiency and innovation within the organization, are you really going to say, that sounds interesting, but we’re going to hamstring that effort because of our enterprise applications over here? The objective here is to drive better customer support and you need to make sure that the information flow is good. Are you going to insist that everyone uses one program that everybody hates? Meanwhile, you have a new [Web 2.0] technology over here that has proven, positive ROI with very little investment. It’s much more efficient than your centralized application.

CIO: What will your business users do if a CIO demands they work on that old corporate app?

Li: Many will go and get a software as a service (SaaS) vendor in all of ten minutes using a credit card. It’ll go underneath the radar.

CIO: So we’ve talked about what not to do. How about a company from your research who has gotten this Web 2.0 in the enterprise thing right? And how could they see the success from using Web 2.0 technologies?

Li: One of my favorite ones is around Best Buy. They had an internal site called Blue Shirt Nation. It was two guys in marketing who said we need more intelligence from the front lines in the stores. It was an internal social network with blogs and forums. So they built this as a way for the employees to talk with each other, and therefore they could get more intelligence out of it.

While it turned out not to be that great for marketing intelligence, it was fantastic in terms of providing support for employees. As an example, there was a camera display case that just didn’t look right at one store. So an employee takes a picture of it, puts it on the Blue Shirt Nation site, and said, “did you guys get this wacky display case in your store? It doesn’t look right. The shelves are too high, or too wide. What do you know about this?” Two hours later, someone posted and replied, “I designed those display cases. You were sent the wrong one. There were two varieties. We’ll make sure you get the right one and send it right away. “

How long would it have taken that employee to find this person? They would have made a bunch of calls to find out that it was the wrong case. So this technology broke down walls and enabled a form of communication within the organization that otherwise would have been blocked by silos.

CIO: We tend to hear that the gravitation towards Web 2.0-inspired technologies is still the younger generation. Is that a fair statement? Are the older folks hopeless?

Li: Our data shows that young people will embrace social technologies much more so and participate in them more than older people. There was a cut off at about 40, so the end of Generation X. And even within generation X, it’s a steep decline. But what’s interesting, when we looked at this a year and a half ago, Generation X wasn’t really using Web 2.0 nearly as much, and now they’ve really caught up. And now even the Boomers we see participating, but just not at the same active levels. Often, they’re spectators. They might read blogs and listen to podcasts, but at the other end of participation are creators, who are actively creating that content.