Embrace social networking before it’s too late, experts caution

Terms such as “Web 2.0”, “Enterprise 2.0” and “social networking in the enterprise” are bandied around rather freely these days.

Senior executives realize they had better wrap their corporate heads around the reality these terms signify, but many have no idea just how to do that.

One Canadian expert, in his blog, appropriately captures the predicament of many C-suite types on this score.

“At the senior level in organizations, people can hear the rumbling of the tsunami but they don’t know where it’s coming from, what impact it is going to have, and they don’t know what they can do to embrace it and surf it,” says Michael O’Connor Clarke, vice-president at Ottawa-based based PR firm Thornley Fallis communications.

He is a long-time commentator on the business impact of social media technologies.   

His observations are borne out by a survey of 441 end users conducted by the Association for Information and Image Management (AIIM).  

A non-profit organization based in Silver Spring, Md. AIIM offers content and document management services.   

The survey sought to elicit the attitudes of these users to Enterprise 2.0, which Wikipedia defines as “social software used in enterprise [or] business contexts.”

(AIIM offers a lengthier definition, describing Enterprise 2.0 as: “a system of Web-based technologies that provide rapid and agile collaboration, information sharing, emergence, and integration capabilities in the extended enterprise.”)

The AIIM survey results uncover considerable ambivalence in corporate attitudes to the idea of social software in the enteprise.

For instance, 44 per cent of respondents identified Enterprise 2.0 as “imperative” or “significant” to their goals.

Despite this, nearly three-quarters also said they had a vague familiarity at best of what exactly the catch-phrase means.

“On one hand they’re saying it’s critical, but on the other hand they’re saying ‘we don’t know what it is’,” says Carl Frappaolo, vice-president of market intelligence at AIIM.

Media attention around the catch-phrase and its pick-up as a business buzz word means it is a blip on the corporate radar screen, though no one understands yet what to do with those tools, notes O’Connor Clarke.  

So how does Enterprise 2.0 differ from Web 2.0?

Simply based on the context and environment in which these tools are used, Frappaolo says.

“It’s Web 2.0 if [they] aren’t used to create content proprietary to the enterprise.”

Confusing the two is understandable because the same tools are at play – mashups, wikis, blogs, RSS, Podcasting, social voting and social bookmarking.

Survey respondents correctly identified many of these technologies as facilitating Enterprise 2.0, except for podcasting.

About seven in 10 businesses are looking to boost collaboration with these tools, according to the study. Collaboration was also identified as the area receiving the most impact.

“There does seem to be an appreciation of technologies as evolutionary, and that they don’t replace everything that came before them,” Frappaolo says.

Clarke concurs that Enterprise 2.0 supplements existing infrastructure.

He says companies are likely seeing these tools being adopted at a grass roots level already, if not at the executive level.

Many of these tools are so commonplace, it is hard not to be using them to some extent, says Thornton May, an IT futurist with the IT Leadership Academy in Biddeford, Main.

Applications are “probably on the desktop without the IT people knowing about them.”  

Should executives get involved in shaping a strategy for the new collaboration tools?

AIIM seems to think so.

“There’s a lot of informal usage going on in the marketplace, and there’s very-little top-down strategic use,” Frappaolo says. “That’s one of the double-edged swords of Enterprise 2.0.”

Companies should Enterprise 2.0 tools in much the same way they control something like e-mail, he says. A wiki may allow anyone to contribute, “but do you want everyone to be an editor?”

Clarke, however, says organizations shouldn’t corporatize a collaborative activity, but should just step out of the way.

The trend is about the democratization of content, and should be driven by end-users.

“I don’t think it is something you can mandate from the top-down,” Clarke says. “You can’t force it on your enterprise.”

May suggests a balanced approach. A company should have some loose policies guiding employees in the use of collaborative tools, he says. But the organization still gets to draw the line when it wants.

“The challenge is to structure the rules so they don’t get in the way. You don’t want to be a creativity destroyer; you want to be a creativity amplifier.”

No matter what management approach they advocate, experts agree that at least understanding Enterprise 2.0 will be critical for business in the future.
With more than half of survey respondents naming “lack of understanding” as the main barrier to adoption, it is no easy task.

“Most organizations understand there is a degree of criticality here and they are begging to learn more about it,” Frappaolo says.

Even beyond collaboration, the tools could be used for Enterprise content tagging, Clarke says.

Social bookmarking sites allow Web surfers to index content in a personalized manner –  enterprises may solve their data structure woes in the same way, he says.

“Any organization that doesn’t have a project team in place figuring out how they can use social software is going to be left behind by their competitors,” he adds.

Ultimately, Enterprise 2.0 could transform the way business works, May says. It may not be too long before the enterprise is defined by a mission statement, and leverages its various social groups to accomplish progress.

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