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Social networking tools are the new email: Three tips from a CTO

It's past time for CIOs to embrace enterprise social networking tools, says SearchCIO expert Niel Nickolaisen. Seek them out, measure their business value, and don't get discouraged if at first they don't succeed.

I remember life before email. Back then, communication and collaboration was slow, difficult and only happened during business hours. Before email, I used an office telephone to arrange things. Many of my calls went unanswered and directly to voicemail. To arrange a meeting around others' schedules was a nightmare. If I had a great idea in the evening, I wrote it down and tracked down the recipients of my great idea sometime in the next day or two. I wrote memoranda and sent them through interoffice mail (yes, I am old). Communication was slow and could not happen at the pace of business.

Then email came along and my life changed. I could communicate with large numbers of people in a single swoop. I could check schedules before inviting others to a meeting. I could communicate anytime and -- once smartphones came along -- anywhere. I could throw work-life balance out the window and spend every waking hour reading and writing email. I could spend a portion of every vacation day getting the evil eye from my wife as I tried to explain, "Just let me finish this one message before we climb to the Parthenon."

Our need for communication and collaboration is near instantaneous. We often need to get the right people together to make a decision and it needs to happen right now. We also need to quickly sort through options and alternatives right now.

Email changed our lives. It got us much closer to real-time communication. But, it has been a few years since email graced our lives. The pace of change has accelerated, driven by technology. Our need for communication and collaboration is near instantaneous. We often need to get the right people together to make a decision, and it needs to happen right now. We also need to quickly sort through options and alternatives right now. Fortunately, since the creation of email, we have tools designed just for such instantaneous communication and collaboration: social networking tools, and they have a clear place in the enterprise.

I have found there are two ways for IT to handle social networking in the enterprise. One is to fight tooth and nail to discourage the tools, question their business value or their security, and wonder if such tools will lead to a culture of goofing off at the workplace. Invariably, such IT leaders and departments eventually give in, but along the way, earn a reputation as being stodgy, obstructionist, and in the way of progress. The other way is to embrace, promote and experiment with social networking tools. Invariably, such IT leaders and departments are viewed as business-centric and advanced. Which would you rather be? If you want to be in the second group, here are some things I have found that work:

  • Find out what constitutes the leading edge of social networking. Somewhere in your organization, you have avid social networkers who know what tools work the best. They know which messaging, video and real-time collaboration tools have the best mobile versions. They know which ones integrate best with your enterprise tools. They know which are the simplest to use. They know which ones are hip and cool. Find them, meet with them and form a plan for how to deploy the best tools for communication and collaboration.
  • Experiment to determine business value. The business value of social networking tools can be nebulous and hard to pre-define. Be willing to try out the tools in a series of pilot programs and measure the results. If the tools work, the organization will use them and demand more. If the tools don't work, end the pilot.
  • Don't be discouraged if the use of social networking tools does not immediately work. At the core, communication and collaboration are cultural issues. If people are not used to communication and collaboration, tools alone will not resolve that issue. To help things along, find a small group of communication and collaboration advocates and put them in charge of evangelizing the use of the tools. Overtime, adoption and business value will increase.

Right now is a great time to be an IT leader because technology is the language of business. It is time to embrace every flavor of tool -- including social networking.

About the author:
Niel Nickolaisen is CTO at O.C. Tanner Co., a Salt Lake City-based human resources consulting company that designs and implements employee recognition programs. A frequent writer and speaker on transforming IT and IT leadership, Niel holds an M.S. degree in engineering from MIT, as well as an MBA degree and a B.S. degree in physics from Utah State University. You can contact Niel at

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Have social networking tools (e.g. LinkedIn, Skype, Twitter, BigAnt, DBabble) become the new email for you at work?
Not for me - I still see those tools as a layer atop my email communications. I'll have certain types of conversations via social media (some commentary on an issue, possibly customer service) and then maybe interact with those same people via email for more in-depth, less public back-and-forth. 

Every workplace is a little different and employees are going to take cues from their peers - if they see real decisions are made via Twitter conversations, then they will start using those tools for similar purposes. I think for many, it's likely that social media will work together with email rather than replace it completely.