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Enterprise social networking sucks the social out of ‘social’

The man sitting next to me at lunch yesterday works at a bank too big to fail. We were at the Forrester 2011 Forum in Boston, and were both following the content and collaboration track. He told me his bank uses Microsoft SharePoint for collaboration but he is in the market for enterprise social networking software that will encourage employees across the company to be, well, more social. To share. SharePoint works fine for project groups, he said, but tends to fortify organizational silos, not break them down. He’s looked at Jive and at running NewsGator atop SharePoint, but is leaning toward Cisco’s new Quad platform. His bank is a big Cisco customer and has offered advice to Cisco on making Quad work for regulated industries.

But in any case, the problem won’t be the technology, he said, but in selling employees on the idea of an enterprise-wide social forum. Not only are the various operations of the bank siloed off from each other, but there also are silos within silos. People are uncomfortable with the notion of putting stuff out there that is visible to the whole company, he added. The economic climate hasn’t helped, nor have company layoffs. He has decided to provide a model for his employees by putting a little more information out in the bank’s current public forums — to encourage them to share more. Like what? Well, he wasn’t going to publish HR information, of course, but comments on how a project is going, or celebrating one of his employee’s successes, seemed fair game. Still, it was all a bit puzzling to him. In practice, workplace information goes viral all the time. Any email can be forwarded.

I thought about his comment on forwarding emails and had a mini epiphany about the disruptive promise of enterprise social networking. A forwarded email reinforces the countless pecking orders that (in subtle and not so subtle ways) can poison the working environment. Putting the information out on a common platform will flatten hierarchies. But what will equal access mean for companies and employees? Maybe employees know there is no such thing as equal access.

These are early days indeed for sorting out the effect on business of enterprise social networking. And a day’s worth of conference sessions on the topic did nothing except show how conflicted businesses are when it comes to social networking. One example: The gist of the opening session was that IT departments had to be involved in developing their companies’ enterprise social networking platforms — and not only for the obvious reasons of security and compliance. People are clannish. Multiple systems defeat the purpose of enterprise social networking. “It used to be ‘Let 1,000 flowers bloom,'” one of the Forrester analysts said. But that has led to business units each creating their own social networks, sometimes multiple social plots per unit. “Walled gardens are not helpful,” he told the audience. There needs to be an enterprise standard.

But therein lies the paradox. Once there is an enterprise standard and everyone belongs to “the club,” it isn’t a club anymore and people clam up.

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It's not about the tool. Corporate politics and gamesmanship will stifle, if not kill the 'social enterprise'. Companies who do not fully embrace the notion of breaking down the silos will eventually die, sometimes slowly, sometimes more rapidly. However, it should really start with how a company opens up its doors/windows to customer interaction, then work on the internal stuff.