The Social Enterprise – What Works, and What Doesn’t

Last week in Reston, Virginia, the New New Internet conference took place, and the spotlight was on the adoption
of new social technologies in the enterprise. One morning panel was moderated by
Ryan Carson and featured Brad Feld, the Managing Director at the Foundry Group,
Hans Hwang, VP Advanced Services, Cisco, and myself. During the course of our discussion, Ryan brought up a set of interesting questions:

  • Should enterprises embrace blogging?
  • What is the impact of Google Docs on the enterprises?
  • Do corporations need social networks?
  • Can enterprises benefit from social bookmarking and wikis?

The discussion eventually brought us to an even broader question:
Why should enterprises go social, and what are the compelling reasons for adoption?
On the surface there are immediate benefits, but from experience we know that
consumer technologies do not directly map into the enterprise. In this post, we explore
the reasons for the social enterprise, look at what social technologies fit and raise
various concerns related to adoption.

The Need For Agile Enterprise

As a rule, what is good for individuals is not good for companies and the other way around.
This is because both are selfish and it is the tension between the two that drives capitalism.
The same is true for technologies; consumer products have not traditionally been needed by companies,
with the exception of communication tools. People want bells and whistles, companies need functional tools.
Even from the venture perspective, the consumer Internet and enterprise software systems are two
completely different markets where different strategies are needed for success.

Lately however, with the increasing speed at which our society operates, we are seeing that companies
have had to become more agile in order to compete. The old hierarchical structures are unable
to process information quickly enough to make day-to-day business decisions.

Take the software vertical, for example.
Because startups can build tools quickly and on the cheap, larger companies are pressured to move quickly too.
The same is true with big pharma. Small, biotech startups are moving quickly putting pressure on the big companies.
As Games Gleick
put it in his book: everything is faster.

Self-Organization in the Enterprise

So how can companies become agile? The answer is from the bottom-up. The hierarchy needs to give way to self-organization.
What this means is that instead of control and decisions coming from the top, individual teams need to be empowered
to execute. This does not mean chaos and anarchy. It does not mean complete lack of planning. It actually means
setting goals globally but enabling the execution locally. Each team within the company needs to have the tools,
the motivation, and the mandate to execute at its best.

The main key to building successful companies is communication. Far too often, the corporate structure
creates boundaries that preclude people from getting things done. We are all way too familiar with a hierarchy where communication
occurs through the management layer. This is the worst way to propagate information because important details get lost.
The agile method simply uses managers to establish the need for direct communication and then enables people to talk
to each other when necessary, using common sense.

And here is an interesting thing – social web tools encourage and facilitate self-organization.
User-generated content, openness and direct communication are all attributes of the recent social web revolution.
Can they be applied to enterprises to make them more agile? Lets take a look then at how various social
inventions could work in the modern enterprise.

Social Networking in the Enterprise

Corporations have had the precursor of social networks for ages. Corporate pages,
common to nearly all large companies, contain information about every employee.
The problem with these pages is that they are read-only. Passing the management of the pages
to the employees and making the pages writable would actually turn the whole system into a mini social network.

Benefits: Openness, facilitation of contact information sharing and corporate communication.

Social Bookmarking in the Enterprise

Regardless of whether it is a technical or business team, knowledge acquisition and sharing is a challenge.
Often, employees within the same team and even more often across teams, rediscover the same information.
What better way is there to share the valuable information found on the web than a social bookmarking system?

Benefits: Knowledge discovery and sharing.

Wikis in the Enterprise

Wikis provide a very powerful way of documenting corporate know-how and sharing knowledge.
Wikis replace corporate intranets, bringing fresh, read/write character and spirit. By enabling
employees to contribute to wikis, companies establish a self-checking, self-organizing method of
documenting processes and facts about the business. As an example, a typical problem in the enterprise
is the transfer of knowledge. When an old employee leaves, information is often lost to his or her replacement. Wikis are
much less prone to errors than static Word documents, because they are out there in the open, and people can fix them.

Benefits: Self-organizing documentation for business know-how.

Agile Project Management in the Enterprise

Traditionally, enterprises have used Microsoft Project as their management tool. A lighter family of web-based
tools emerged recently, most notably Basecamp from 37Signals. The main difference is that Basecamp takes core concepts found in
all projects – People, Tasks, Milestones, etc. – and puts them in the spotlight. It is easy to use, but the question is really about which method of managing projects
is more effective in the enterprise?

Basecamp takes a hands off approach, letting the user drive it and fill in the right stuff. It is light weight,
so you can not do much wrong by it. However, at this point it does lack some features that would be a show stopper for enterprises –
calendar and email integration are just a few. Yet, Basecamp would probably be more effective for most teams within large companies
than Microsoft Project because of its refreshing simplicity. Playing along with the self-organization theme, Basecamp
simply allows people to collaborate on the project in a distributed way.

Benefits: Simplicity, agility, and a distributed, web-based setup.

Web Office for the Enterprise

Google is making a major push into corporate environments with its online office apps. Why? Likely to
eat more of Microsoft’s lunch. By making tools that are agile, cheap, and functional, Google is starting to march into Microsoft’s territory. But what really matters is utility. Are Google’s tools and approach better? If you’ve spent time using Google tools you
are likely to answer yes. Of course they are buggy, and still not
as smooth, but they are simple, they focus on collaboration and they are web based.

Benefits: Simple, cheap, focused on collaboration and web-based.

Blogging for the Enterprise

A big question being asked around the enterprise right now is should corporations blog? The reason the question is hard to
answer is because it is vague. The better question asks when and who should blog for a company. Like any targeted marketing
(and blogging for companies is marketing), it needs to be thought through, organized and delivered consistently.
A variety of blog formats could be successful. For example, if we are talking about a product company, then the
product managers can start a blog to engage the audience. Through this blog they can bounce ideas, pick up beta testers,
get feedback and genuinely leverage their users to build a better product.

Another example of corporate blogging is the executive blog. Such a blog could be successful if it explains the competitive landscape and
discusses high-level plans and positioning. A third corporate blogging example is a blog used to share insights about running the company. By sharing what you learn and showing good will you
are likely to create a good reputation and drive talent to your company.

Benefits: Marketing, PR, product development, user feedback, image building, and recruiting.

Wait, What About Security and Secrecy?

Clearly there are benefits in taking social technologies to the enterprise, but there are also big challenges.
The first one is security. Companies are obsessed with it, for better or worse. It might not make sense, it might be silly,
but companies always want to know: What about security? Not everyone in the company should have access to all kinds of information.
That is obvious as well, but how do you get this done?

Speaking broadly, the social toolset needs to be overlayed with a layer of security.
This layer needs to ensure that information is viewable by only those authorized to see it, across the entire suite of tools,
across the whole enterprise.

The second issue is secrecy. Apple, for instance, is known to be very secretive about its plans. Does it give them
a competetive edge? Likely yes. How does the introduction of blogging and open social tools to the enterprise impact that?
More leaks are likely to occur. Information has an amazing tendency to find its way forward through the human network.
The challenge then, is to define a set of policies and rules that ensure that nothing classified gets out. This is not simple.

Conclusion

New social tools can enable companies to be more agile and self-organizing. The have a chance to break down the walls
of complex, ineffective hierarchies and to empower employees to get things done. These tools are simple, fun, engaging, and inspirational. Bringing fresh winds of change to the stale corporate mentality is a good thing and should be welcomed.

If you work for a large company, we would like to hear from you. What social tools are you discussing or using today?
What benefits did you find? What are your concerns and challenges? Let us know in the comments below.

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