Tech.Maven: Are companies supposed to be social?

Wouldn’t everyone love to work for a cool company? You know the sort of thing – pizza and beer in the fridge, bright colours, bean bags and everyone generally thrilled to be there. Indeed, exactly the sort of company that would welcome all those zany, fun, exciting social-networking-in-the-enterprise tools.

While such a working environment might sound exciting to some, it doesn’t necessarily have the mass appeal that the purveyors of such tools, and indeed the pundits and commentators who embrace them, might believe. “I’m an electronic engineer,” said one person to me when I asked about his company’s use of Yammer. “What time do I have for filling in my profile or joining in some chat?”

According to those who buy into the concept of “Enterprise 2.0” at a more evangelical level, he must be wrong – or at least he’ll need to get with the program sooner or later. There exist “sea changes in the world right now in terms of the way we are globally transforming the way we live and work,” argues Dion Hinchcliffe, one of the “Enterprise Irregulars” – a group whose numbers include consultants, analysts and vendors in the social media space.

The sea changes and global transformations have but one goal, namely to take us to a place where business is done very differently from the past, enabled by a stratum of collaborative technology. Without a doubt, plenty of room for improvement exists in today’s sometimes monolithic, other times fragmented but always sub-optimal organisations. But – to ask the million-dollar question – what if that isn’t the case? What if, shock horror, business in fifty, a hundred years time will look quite similar to how it looks today?

Whatever the rhetoric, it’s clear that social media hasn’t yet made an enormous dent on the enterprise. Part of the reason is down to the lack of obvious impact on real business outcomes, beyond general notions of knowledge sharing and engagement, argues Rob Preston at Information Week. “The movement’s evangelists employ the kumbaya language of community engagement rather than the more precise language of increasing sales, slashing costs, and reducing customer complaints,” he says.

Perhaps the issue is in how the argument is being framed in the first place, once again (and how many times have we seen this) taking a new technology and seeing it not as a response to a specific need, but as the answer, the salve to solve all ills. Organisations are inherently bad, goes the thinking, and now – praise be! – we have the opportunity to change them for ever. Even the term “mainstream acceptance” implies some kind of waiting game, like it’s only a matter of time before even the most cynical succumb to the charms of the social.

It seems highly likely that we shall see social media tools go the same way as all other game-changing, world-beating technologies. The ability to store information in a relational database was once the most fantastic innovation – and perhaps, when we look back on all this in a few decades, we’ll find it still is. But apart from in a few sad corners of the Internet, you don’t tend to find people wanting to be called “database evangelists” anymore.

Technology commoditises, becomes part of the infrastructure, lowers in price as the attention (and the money) moves to the next big thing. In general few technologies ever die, they simply find their niche – that is, uses are found for them that deliver specific value. In social technology’s case, for example, getting a quick expert answer to a customer query, or as Rob Preston mentions, finding a spare part.

To add insult to injury, however, some innovations are never destined to exist in their own right. The humiliating phrase “Is that a product or a feature” could well be applied to social networking capabilities, which are becoming more and more integrated into platforms such as Salesforce.com for customer management and Broadvision for content sharing. Enterprise social networking may well turn out to be one of those things that has succeeded when everyone stops talking about it.

As a final point of course, today’s youth is growing up believing that such tools just exist, there to be used just like the telephone or the video camera. It may well be the case that such technology-savvy youngsters arrive with different expectations of how business could be done. But given the dual pressures of corporate inertia and the need to maintain governance, the kids aren’t going to have things all their own way.

So, yes, it would be great to work in a fun office, to be creative, to share information and change the world. In reality however, no organisation is going to implement a technology simply because it fits with an idea of what business might be like, at some point in the distant future. Even if there is beer involved.

[Originally published on Tech.Maven]

Tech.Maven: Are companies supposed to be social?

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