Do enterprise social networks matter?

flick-birds

Massive global online social networks have enabled consumers to disrupt markets and even helped citizens to disrupt governments. But what about social networks within business? Is there potential to improve the workplace?

The quick answer would be Yes! But the messy reality of most workplaces mean the outcome is not quite so clear.

Here are some real-world observations, based on organisations who have piloted and/or rolled out enterprise social networking tools over the past 2 years for internal purposes:

  • The most active uses have all shared a similar trait: connecting a distributed peer group focused on R&D-style activities. People who talk the same language (i.e. domain-specific) and share the same interests but are geographically dispersed.
  • The weakest use has been when it is deployed as a generic organisation-wide tool for everyone to start communicating online. There may be an initial flare of activity but usage tends to drop-off within 6 months.
  • The organisations who experience the most demonstrable benefits are in intellectually competitive markets, particularly science, technology and engineering, where specialist expertise is highly sought and valued but where there is openness to expanding knowledge.
  • Most senior managers are surprised at how well enterprise social networking tools are embraced when people are given the opportunity to participate.
  • Most successful deployments have at least one role dedicated to encouraging and moderating participation. May be a permanent role, can also be an ‘on rotation’ responsibility.

Here are some factors to consider before deploying enterprise social network tools:

  • What’s the intended outcome – Is it to strengthen relationships? Uncover hidden pockets of knowledge? Mine skills for collective intelligence? Involve people in decisions? Speed up access to expertise? Improve communications?
  • Are the dependencies in place – Will people have time to participate? Will they care (priorities)? Will their contributions be acknowledged, used, ignored or dismissed? How will conflicts be resolved?
  • What’s the overall culture of the organisation like – Is gossip encouraged or frowned upon?
  • Don’t mix up collaborative working with social networks. Different audiences, different activities. But one can help the other to scale…
  • Don’t get too hooked up on the technology choice – the value is in the conversation.
  • Consider training to improve communication skills for key roles.

And if there’s one tip above all others for getting started, try focusing on a specific area of the organisation rather than thinking ‘we are going social’. Can an enterprise social network create the digital equivalent of the water cooler or coffee area for a peer group that is otherwise unable to chat on a regular or ad-hoc basis?

Related blog posts

Flickr image: “Group Dynamics” kindly shared by Gary Cooper

Blogging mistakes help improve policy

A mini-furore erupted on Twitter this week, when a Twitter developer tweeted about “some nifty site features” in development on the internal version of Twitter that could impact third party solutions. GigaOM has a good post documenting it all, and the title says it all – Twitter Staffer Stops Blogging After Backlash

The interesting part and reason for this post:

So did the Twitter incident cause Payne to stop blogging? He says in his final blog post that while he intended the personal blog to be a place where he could talk about ideas, his posts had started to “spark whole conversations that I never intended to start in the first place…”

It’s an issue that many organisations worry about when embarking on a social media strategy – what if an employee gives out information they shouldn’t? How do you control the message? And the simple answer is you can’t. How you react is another matter entirely.

Back when I worked at Microsoft, a great mentor told me about a case study he had researched as part of his management studies. A Japanese manufacturer, through human error, experienced a serious problem in their production line. Serious enough to damage both the stock price and reputation of the brand (as well as cost a small fortune in lost inventory and wasted resources). The person at fault offered his resignation. In many organisations he would have been fired before having the chance to volunteer. His resignation was refused. The CEO was asked why (when interviewed for the case study). His response went along the lines:

What would I gain from firing him? The problem still needed fixing and he was a good employee, who would have gone to one of my competitors. I didn’t fire him, I promoted him and put him in charge of not only fixing the problem but improving the process… (spotting the mistake sooner would have cost less)

Pity politics doesn’t work this way…

If you’re a good person (I do believe that applies to the majority) and you screw up, you learn a hard lesson very fast but it is not one you will quickly forget. And having learned the lesson through bitter experience, you have a vested interest in seeing the problem fixed and helping others avoid falling down the same rabbit hole. It’s simply adding another mistake to the pile if that experience is ignored or lost out the door.

There’s an old ‘techie’ quote about hard disk failures and the importance of back-ups: there are those who have lost their data and those who have yet to… Organisations wanting to embrace social media but worrying about the ‘what if…?’ need to do two things:

  1. Implement a policy and training programme, even if it’s just lunch briefings, to ensure everyone understands their responsibilities when discussing company information in any pubic forum, social or otherwise.
  2. Have a procedure for how to handle the inevitable mistakes. Step 1: Identify the type of mistake – is it a disgruntled employee deliberately trying to cause damage or (far more likely) human error. Do not treat them as the same thing.

Related posts:

The value in Twitter

This is a post about Twitter. If you’ve never used or heard about Twitter, the Wikipedia page for Twitter will give you a brief introduction. Come back when you’ve read it. 🙂

I love Twitter. Twitter has introduced me to some great people and really demonstrates the value in weak connections. Strong connections inevitably create an echo chamber – if you are talking to the same people sharing the same interests and opinions, deja vu becomes familiar 🙂 I remember reading a Japanese quote once, went along the lines: “If more than two people are in agreement, at least one is not required.” Kind of makes sense. (I’ve got a feeling it was as harsh as: If two people are in agreement…) Weak ties broaden your horizons and connect you to a whole new group of people. Diversity thrives on weak connections. And diversity is great for challenging assumptions and generating new ideas.

People often ask if Twitter is just a simplified version of Instant Messaging. Nope. With Instant Messaging (IM), you have a list of contacts you can chat to. But to chat means to specifically start a conversation, to interrupt. With Twitter, you can talk at will, regardless of whether or not anyone is listening (simple tip: Tweet rubbish and nobody will). If people don’t want to be interrupted, they simply ignore Tweetsville. They don’t have to set their status to Busy or pretend to be Offline to avoid a conversation. To Tweet or not (and to follow or not) is entirely optional, for all sides of the conversation.

Instant Messaging (IM) is about strongly-connected networks. You start a conversation with someone who is on your contacts list or if you know their IM address. You can’t see other conversations unless you are specifically invited into them. There is no serendipity in IM. Twitter is about loosely-coupled networks. You can view every Tweet from every person with an open account (you can have a hidden one if you want). By default, you get see Tweets from people you choose to follow. It’s up to you if you want to respond. And up to others if they want to reply.

Whilst some users stick to the ‘What are you doing’ theme (and offer ‘too much information’ about their dietary habits – you know who you are, Marmite sandwich lamb), it can offer so much more – great for sharing links, one-liners, ad-hoc conversations and making announcements. And Twitter has one IM feature that is brilliant – the ability to send a direct message (but only to someone who is following you). Direct messages are also sent out as emails and text messages to mobile phones. Fantastic if you don’t have the mobile phone number and want to get in touch.

Not convinced? Here are some examples:

  • I spotted Guy Kawasaki‘s tweet and was able to review a draft copy of his upcoming book, sent comments via email and he gave me some start-up advice in return. Happy days.
  • Comcast spotted Mike Arrington‘s rants about his broken Internet connection and got in touch to sort it out. His rants turned into praise of equal volume. (He has 20,000 followers on Twitter. Most churches would dream of such participation.)
  • I muttered and moaned about Zoho in a Tweet. They responded on Twitter and Email within the hour.
  • Steve Clayton was asked a question he didn’t know the answer to (amazing, but true), a tweet for help and the answers flocked in
  • I saw Euan Semple tweeting to some chap called Sleepydog. I met said Sleepydog, aka Toby Moore, at a conference last week. We even Tweeted where we were sitting to organise a meet-up.
  • Loic Le Meur announced an early bird special for his LeWeb conference in December on Twitter… and then tweeted with updates about how many tickets were left. Would they have sold so quickly without Twitter?
  • I saw Euan Semple tweeting to some chap called Stephen Dale. Started following him. He saw me tweeting with Rob Gray whom he had also met. Rob introduced me to Stephen in London two weeks ago.
  • When a blogger was arrested in Egypt, he managed to send a quick SOS on Twitter (no time for anything else) and people who saw it helped get him released. His interpreter has not been so lucky
  • I hear about important news first on Twitter. Stuff that matters inevitably gets talked about by someone in the network. Even the BBC seems to Tweet about news before it appears on their 24-hour TV channel

By the way, all the above links lead to Twitter pages. If you’ve never visited Tweetsville before, you’ll need to create an account and login to view what they say. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Waste 5 minutes of time.

Just about any business could gain benefits from using Twitter. It taps into what seems to be an innate animal trait – the desire to communicate, instantly. To synchronise. (I had never looked at it this way until Ken Thompson’s brilliant session at the NLabs Social Networks conference). Anything that connects with our genetic make-up has value. And, alas, the potential to be exploited. Although that has yet to happen on Twitter (service is to damn unreliable!)

The challenge for Twitter is that I would never pay for the service. It’s a feature, not a platform. A lot of people have asked how can Twitter monetise it’s product. Getting users to pay for it is never going to be an option. (More so, whilst the service is still unreliable and prone to unexpected downtime.) Twitter is a messaging tool. People are no longer used to paying for messaging tools, whether it’s IM or email. The current forms of online advertising work in information-seeking environments, not human-seeking ones like communication tools and social networking sites. But Twitter has some serious value tied up in its rather clever feature. Analytics could discover patterns between conversations, links and networks…

Next stop: FriendFeed. And it’s a platform, not a feature…

Further reading:

Nlab Social Networks conference

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of attending the Nlab Social Networks conference, held at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. Big congratulations to Sue Thomas and all involved with organising the event. What was particularly great about this conference was the level of networking that took place between sessions. Arguably, we could have done with double the time allowed for coffee and lunch. Unheard of at your average conference…

All the sessions were great but three stood out for me (a.k.a. I took some notes). Here you go:

The Future of Work: Amplified Individuals, Amplified Organisation – Andrea Saveri, The Institute for the Future

Andrea introduced a new term (for me, at least) entering the workplace: Amplified Individuals (perhaps a flavour of AI that will really happen…) Amplified Individuals are highly collaborative, highly improvisational and highly augmented.

Highly Collaborative: Able to tap in to and contribute to the intelligence of crowds. Act as social filters for massive amounts of information (demonstrated in the use of tools such as del.icio.us, Flickr, Diff, Friendfeed etc.) Enable the use of prediction markets (see related blog post: More on idea markets)

Highly Improvisational: Create ad-hoc resources and infrastructures, as and when needed to achieve a specific goal. Have the motivation and know-how to bypass traditional constraints and form new relationships within and across organisational walls. Serena Software are a great example of this, what started with ‘Facebook Friday’ (see related blog post: Web Wisdom) became their new intranet (see recent news: How one CEO Facebooked his company, Fortune)

Highly Augmented: Employ systems, tools and hacks to enhance cognitive abilities and coordination skills (the drug Provigil, aka Modafinil, crops up again).

Amplified Individuals possess Superhero powers for business, including:

  • Mob-ability – ability to work in large groups, a talent for organising and collaborating with many people simultaneously
  • Influencing – able to be persuasive in multiple social contexts and media spaces
  • Ping Quotient – your responsiveness to requests from other people for engagement
  • Protovation – fearless innovation in rapid, iterative cycles (i.e. prototype first, discuss requirements later…)
  • Multi-capitalism – fluency in working in different capitals: social (reputation), financial, intellectual, natural (green)
  • Signal/Noise management – able to filter meaningful information
  • Co-operative radar – able to sense, almost intuitively, who would make the best team for a particular task (across employees, partners, customers, etc.)

Bioteams: What we can learn about nature’s social networks – Ken Thompson, Swarmteams Ltd

It’s difficult to describe Ken’s session, because it mostly involved an experiment requiring audience participation. And my inability to use my mobile phone (ruins my Ping Quotient) at anything more than a snail’s pace interrupted note-taking. You can try it for yourself at the Swarmteams web site. It’s an interesting concept. You create a group on a web site. People can then join the group by sending a text message from their mobile with the line ‘join group username’ (e.g. ‘join nlabs joiningdots’). The web site sends out a question, and everyone in the group receives it on their phone and can send a response back, all via text messaging service. (Great, given I have 3 billion unused text messages on my phone contract.) And the web site gathers all the messages together in a single folder. It’s a little like Twitter. And is a great way of organising groups on the fly for a niche event, or to gather feedback on a given subject (i.e. a perfect tool for those Amplified Individuals).

What was most interesting was Ken’s reasoning behind this idea. The use of short instant messages to communicate (or, rather, synchronise) is common place in nature – the bee’s waggle, fireflies flash, ants waft pheromones. Be it motion, or emitting light, sound or smell, most animals have the need and method for instant short-term communication. Humans do too, but few organisations recognise, acknowledge or take advantage of the tools freely available…

If you’re interested in the connection between nature and business, here’s some books I have enjoyed on this subject:

Social Networking beyond the Dogma: Let’s Make Some Money – Jim Benson, Modus Cooperandi

Wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw the title of this session. But Jim delivered some grounded comments about why businesses should be using social networking tools. His use of concept maps, rather than traditional slides, to convey his message was very effective. I’m planning to try something similar when I get the chance (it reminded me of a comment Euan Semple made a couple of years ago, about how the software interface for collecting knowledge should be like walking through a village…) Here’s a sample of what was said:

  • Small businesses do not need more stuff to do… but they do need advice, peers, customers and partners, all of which comes from communities
  • Communities create value through participation, which takes time
  • Time is expensive therefore invest it wisely
    • Understand intangibles, which include more clients, future services and business partners
    • Employ judgment – in the use of social tools like networking sites and review sites
  • Learn – your community, your limit, your market – by experimenting
  • Start now – small and directed, what fits immediate needs and your personality

Finally, Steve Clayton did a great kick-off presentation about how Microsoft has approached blogging and social networking. My non-amplified self sulks at giving him links when I’m wallowing in the lower ranks of Technorati 🙂 but his presentation is available online. Multiple hat tips to all the speakers. They delivered some great content and I have captured a mere sound bite of it here. And thank you to everyone I met on the day and have chatted to since on Twitter, some great conversations all around.

References:

And hat tip as always to Wikipedia for assisting with references. (Even if I did have to navigate past the band Fire Flies to locate one of the pages.)

Related Blog Posts:

Filed in Library under: Social Networks

Technorati tags: Social Networks | Social Computing | Collective Intelligence | Smart Mobs