Enterprise social media, and why we just don’t get it

Enterprise social media is currently one of the most hyped technologies in business, which has led to a wide range of companies and organisations jumping on the bandwagon but also to a lot of denial of the disruption it brings to the enterprise. 

Today I want to take away the hype and seriously look at where the true value of enterprise social media lies, and why it is disruptive in ways that many organisations haven’t really understood yet.

Social media – never mind the enterprise flavour – is actually widely miscommunicated, even by its biggest proponents: social media, just like the “web 2.0” concept on which it is based, are not new. 

Granted, social media use has exploded since around 2008, with the rise of Facebook and Twitter among other services, but social media is anything that allows people to share and collaborate in virtual communities, which we have been doing since the earliest days of the internet in newsgroups, chat rooms and forums.

Many types of social media

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Foursquare… the list goes on and if there’s one clear trend in social media today, it’s that the number of networks we’re part of keeps growing. There’s a very clear reason for this: we use them for different purposes, at different times, to achieve different things, and to connect with different people. 

In fact, the choice of social network for any given conversation will provide the context for that interaction; much like the difference in the real world between meeting a colleague in the office or at your coffee shop of choice. So with that in mind, why do so many enterprise social deployments seem to be about creating a single social hub for our interactions?

Many different conversations

Perhaps enterprise social media tries to create a single hub because that’s just more efficient: after all, we keep complaining about silos in large organisations which prevent the smooth flow of information and lead to poor decision-making. Really? I see two problems with the “single-hub” model: firstly, how do you prevent information overload; and secondly, the trend is towards employees asking for the ability to work on their terms, rather than being forced into a corporate one-size-fits-all box.

Information overload is a major concern with social media, leading to fears that we are becoming disconnected from the real world and having information with a low signal to noise ratio fill our Twitter feeds. Or our Facebook walls. Or our email inboxes… this isn’t a new trend, in fact it’s a part of human psychology.

Now here’s a bit of a problem: social media gurus and the makers of social tools promote the concept of actively filtering our feeds, or creating multiple feeds, to help us stay on top of the flow of information. The problem is that this remains a wholly passive relationship between us, as consumers of information, and the mass of social media that is trying to stuff us full of information, to “feed” us in fact. The term itself implies that we are passively being fed content.

Social media isn’t just a shared drive with a built-in chat function and a way to like all the CEO’s ghost-written posts; it’s a tool to connect with the people who can best help us work more efficiently. Too often enterprise social media is built purely so that employees can collaborate on work, and see what everyone else is doing. That is, the social network is seen as a hub where users and teams can create folders, store their work and make online edits. This has a use, certainly, but it fails to consider how people want to connect. As for seeing what everyone else is doing, why? Why should we constantly be shown what people far removed from us in the organisation are doing, when it is getting in the way of our own work and network? This isn’t social, it’s noise.“But”, you may be thinking, “at least having a central hub means we’re getting rid of silos, right?” Don’t be so sure: you could actually be creating more silos because the enterprise social tools are disconnected from your employees’ actual workflows. Just because information is posted on an enterprise social tool, doesn’t mean it is actually being shared in a meaningful way. In particular, if you need to duck out of your workflow to go and see if anyone has been talking on your social platform, that’s not an improvement on corporate email. Worse, if your conversations are detached from your information, this is likely to lead to uninformed decision-making.

Internal, external or both?

So far we’ve only looked at internal collaboration tools, but there is another side as well: external social media is where your customers are, it’s where your partners are, and it’s increasingly where the media are as well. In short, if you want to boost customer and partner engagement, not to mention stave off PR disasters, you need to be active on social channels.

The way most enterprise social tools are used means you end up having customer conversations on Facebook or Twitter; your sales department uses Salesforce Chatter, and so on. The problem is that while each of these tools are great, they can’t talk to each other, to your overarching social hub, or to the actual systems that do work, like Office or SAP. This means that you can’t use it to launch a process, delegate tasks, or act on conversations; and switching contexts increases the chances of tasks being dropped. So are we doomed to a future of fragmented social networks, or do we have to strip out the whole mess and start over?

It must be integrated

We need to take a third option, and introduce a light-touch process-oriented integration layer between all these services; remember, we don’t want to get rid of them because each one reflects how a part of the organisation wants to work. 

Rather than trying to route all enterprise social media through a single hub, which ends up too full of irrelevant information, integration allows the tools to talk to each other, and lets workflows pass seamlessly between them.

This is a very different concept to the Facebook clones that enterprise social media often tries to be, but I think this is a direction worth taking. We keep hearing about the consumerisation of business IT; but this does not mean that we have to take exactly what we see in the consumer world. Email and network chat, among other tools, started in the enterprise (as “social tools”) and later spread to the consumer world. At work, we need to use social media for more than sharing our catsfeeding our neuroses and seeing what our friends had for breakfast: we need to use it to get work done. Therefore, enterprise social media needs to take the lead in defining not just how social media can be used, but in creating the ways we will work together in the future.

By David Akka, Managing Director at Magic Software Enterprises UK.

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