August 4, 2008

Freedom and Social Media within the Enterprise

One of the great strengths of social media tools is that they present very low barriers to entry in terms of ease and scope of use. As a result, users around the world have found them a relatively simple and effective way to connect with each other socially and to exercise their creative expression within a seemingly limitless range of freedom. So what happens when social media tools are brought within the enterprise? Based on experience with e-mail for business purposes and the creation of corporate intranets and websites, we know that organizations care deeply about and are held responsible for what happens using corporate technology. As a result, organizations worry about how and to what purposes their technology is used. This worry almost inevitably leads to policies, rules, and a loss of freedom for the user.

Ã…ndrew McAfee seems comfortable with (and appears to welcome) some of the limitations on expression that will most likely be imposed by senior management. In his post, Freedom is Overrated, he observes:

Intranet versions of social networking software will clearly be different from their Internet ancestors. In some ways, I think, they’ll actually be better, because they’ll be less full of superfluous stuff that annoys many people, but that can’t easily be turned off or filtered out. Enterprise equivalents of today’s Facebook and Twitter will probably be more bland, but they might also be more addictive. Knowledge workers might visit them more often throughout the day if they know that when they do they’ll find content, rather than clutter.

Everyone agrees, I believe, that much of the value of the new social networking tools comes from the fact that they create and sustain large communities. Do they also have to let community members do whatever they want? I don’t think so. Social tools that are overlaid with norms and policies, in other words enterprise social tools, can still be highly freeform and foster emergence. They can still be fun to use and highly useful for individuals, and also generate value for the group or the organization as a whole.

In prior posts, I've noted that constraints on freedom are almost unavoidable when technology is adopted by an organization. But will this affect in any essential way the strength of social media tools? Once the corporate policies have been implemented, will they bleach the fun and personality out of social media interactions? And, once that happens, will anyone actually want to use the tools? Clearly, Andrew McAfee is not worried about this, but based on what I've seen in various organizations, I'm not so sure. Initial reaction to the technology may be positive, but it can take a long time for users to warm up to any enterprise version of a well-known application. The external and internal (enterprise) versions are like distant relatives. You can see the family resemblance, but you would never mistake one for the other.

In a subsequent post, Andrew McAfee moved away from heavy-handed restrictions imposed from above and instead proposed using technology to enable free expression within limits chosen by the users. For example, allowing users to tag tweets to indicate whether they are business-related or leisure-related. In that way, colleagues receiving the tweets can elect whether or not to limit themselves to business-related content or to view a wider range of content. Here's how he describes the system:

But I don’t think norms and policies are as bad as all that. I don’t think they necessarily kill self-expression, individuality, serendipity, or trust-building. Norms and policies are not equivalent to a corporate mandate like "no one may use our social software to reveal that they have a life or a personality."

But after more reflection it seems to me that norms and policies might not be the only ways to make a tool like Twitter work well for enterprise purposes. A relatively simple technical fix can also help here. If we just tweak the tweets, in other words, we can make a powerful and useful EnTwitter that overcomes the clutter problem while still letting people be as voluble as they’d like on all topics of interest to them.
If this is in fact the right approach, we'll need to build it into our deployment of social media tools within the enterprise. And then, we'll have to train users how to take advantage of these features to ensure rich content without running afoul of corporate rules.

Moving web 2.0 into the enterprise is a whole new game. Finding a way to adapt the technology without stripping it of its essential character in the process is the challenge. It will be interesting to see how various law firms tackle this task.


Samuel Driessen said...

Interesting post! McAfee's idea to tag tweets can easily be applied to other social media too. I posted some time ago that it would be nice to have one blogplatform, for instance, from which you could tag a post saying if it should be visibly inside and/or outside the organization.

Samuel Driessen said...

Interesting post! I like McAfee's idea to tag tweets as work- or non-work-related.
This idea can easily be applied to other social media as well. On my blog I've written on my wish to have one blog platform enabling me to post inside and outside the organization. So you can tag a post saying if it should be visible only to your company or to the world. This should also work for social network tools, wiki's, etc. It should be that easy!