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How to succeed in social networking and collaboration

Enterprise social networking and collaboration efforts come with high failure rates. Here's how to beat the odds.

As pervasive as social collaboration is in employees' personal lives, enterprise-wide social networking and collaboration platforms are still uncommon, and platforms that drive business value are a rarity. That has been the experience of Tony Byrne, president of The Real Story Group, a vendor-independent analyst firm in Silver Spring, Md., which focuses on Web content and social software. CIOs interested in helping their companies layer social collaboration into business processes soon discover making these tools work well is -- as usual -- more about understanding what people need than simply implementing the technology.

Tony ByrneTony Byrne,
president, The Real
Story Group

In this interview on leveraging social networking and collaboration in the enterprise, Byrne discusses the importance of homing in on specific business applications and of getting IT involved in the implementation -- as well as why integration of social tools remains a problem.

Enterprises are littered with the remains of social networking and collaboration software that never gained traction. At companies where these applications work, what's the secret of their success?

Tony Byrne: The organizations I've seen that have been successful focus a lot on very specific business applications that they insert into a business process. And they let people know the value of them. So, it could be social Q&A, which we know can be very useful in mergers and acquisitions. It could be innovation management [what people used to call "ideation"], which is particularly useful in expanding the scope of your research and development outside of your R&D group. It could be around effective knowledge base management, which seems workaday and boring, but in cases like CRM [customer relationship management] can be very important. It could be expertise location, which we know from case studies of very large multinational professional firms can dramatically improve responsiveness to client requests.

And the common mistakes enterprises make?

Byrne: What you don't want to do is drop a social collaboration platform into the enterprise, give it to everybody and expect that you will get all this value out of it. These platforms are a useful service, but they are not actual applications -- they are kind of a helper application. You have to think about the specific ways in which your employees can use this social collaboration application and then customize it for the business. Or, in the case of the more sophisticated platforms, you have to think about how to take this mass of capabilities -- from Wikis, to profiles, to commenting, to instant messaging -- and shape it into specific business applications that solve real business problems.

That's how you deal with the so-called adoption problem. The goal is not adoption; the goal is business value. If you can actually help people in their day-to-day work, they will use the tools.

Who should be involved in using social networking and collaboration to drive value, and how do companies know which applications to leverage?

Byrne: That is one of the big questions of 2012 right now. I have heard a lot of answers and, quite honestly, I am not comfortable with any of them. There are people who say this is transformational; you should have a chief collaboration officer. I am not into that. Businesses don't need another person in the C-suite. I think what you have to do is look at your existing set of leaders and identify ones who have a vested interest in this.

You have to think about the specific ways in which your employees can use this social collaboration application and then customize it for the business.

Tony Byrne,
president, The Real Story Group

People tend to see these sorts of technologies as the anti-ERP and outside the CIO's domain. I think the CIO has a very important role to play, particularly if you are thinking of doing things enterprise-wide. Also, CIOs can act as an honest broker in helping the enterprise figure out which are the highest value applications.

The other person who is really critical, and who I find is getting more and more involved in social networking and collaboration, is the director of HR. As the HR people figure out how to automate the case management stuff they do, they are being asked to do more in terms of workforce development. Collaboration and social networking go hand-in-hand with workforce development, so HR is on the frontlines of this, and often intuitively sees the value of social networking and collaboration. Sales and marketing and R&D are the other clusters where the use of these tools can immediately show value. Getting them involved is a good idea.

We hear the application question a lot from our clients: "How do we build a roadmap of viable, useful applications?" They can't just jump into this because, if they do, they will fail. And it is a different story in different places. But one constant -- and here is where I differ from some gurus in this field -- that I have seen as a key to success is a very supportive and interested IT operation.

How are they supportive? What do these IT teams bring to the table?

Byrne: They are helping lead people through this thicket of buzzwords and confusion. They help sort this out into concrete projects, which IT is generally pretty good at. They see across the organization. They see commonalities. They often are already trying to rationalize these tools; they know they don't want 12 different Wiki platforms. The other interesting thing about IT teams is that very often they have early, successful adopters of these social networking and collaboration tools.

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Now the downside is that IT may overestimate their business colleagues' ability to pick up some of these interfaces and play with them and do useful things with them. But I have seen things turn out really well where IT was playing a leadership role, in particular where their approach was not to just stifle interesting things that were happening, but to allow innovation. These are the IT teams that are willing to work with existing projects that may even have started as shadow IT, and to say, "Look, we're not coming in here to impose a solution; we are coming in here to bring specific applications that are going to add value." And that is a whole different conversation.

Is it useful for IT to do research to uncover where some of this activity is going on?

Byrne: Absolutely, that is how it often starts. IT will find these tools being used tactically here and there throughout the enterprise. And sometimes employees will come to them, and say, "How come I can't see this information in X collaboration platform when I am working in Y? Can you integrate these?" And, at that point, businesses realize they need some kind of enterprise strategy. And, by the way, that enterprise strategy usually does include multiple vendors and potentially different silos, but at least you've made a conscious decision to accept that rather than let it happen willy-nilly.

Is it possible at this point to integrate these various systems?

Byrne: With enough time, money and painkillers, yes. But people really underestimate the difficulty in doing this. And the reality is the vendors are not particularly interested in creating really open systems. They have APIs [application program interfaces], where you can extract information out of them, but that is not the same thing as being able to have a services-oriented architecture where I can rip out the present mechanism in one system and replace it with something else. That level of abstraction and interoperability doesn't exist. There are some interesting standards; there are a lot of interesting ways to share information, but it is still an issue.

One of the things we see quite often is what we call the "triple P," or proliferating profile problem. This is when there are multiple different systems within an organization that have decided to let employees have profiles, with their pictures and interests and all of their activities. It is a replica of the same problem that we have in public social media. In an ideal world, there would be a single profile standard and a way to bring all of these activity streams together. But, as you can imagine, vendors are falling all over themselves to say, "We are going to be the profile warehouse for your enterprise. Somebody else can work with us, but we are not going to work with them."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, News Director.

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