If you’re not hearing a lot about social enterprise these days, it may be because no one can figure out what the hell social enterprise is.

On paper, the concept sounds reasonable, even important: take popular social media tools (microblogs, wikis, blogs, etc.) and use them for internal collaboration, project management and overall feel-good business practices.

Social Entreprise vs. Business As Usual

But in practice, a lot of companies have found that actually using this stuff is not a magic wand to bring forth happiness and productivity to their organization. The reason? Social media tools in the enterprise often work counter to the internal communications practices that have long been ingrained in companies.

For instance, in theory it might seem like a good idea to coordinate creative activities on social platforms. But in reality, there’s always going to be the managerial hold-out who won’t accept a project as actually moving forward unless there’s a meeting or memos – the very things social enterprise practices are trying to eliminate. And there could be a legitimate need for this, too: If not done properly, social enterprise software can fail at making sure someone deals with all the boring minutia, like documentation for regulatory purposes, which could be a huge no-no.

Then there’s the issue of figuring when and for what social enterprise should be used? In too many cases, employees may get confused over when and how they’re supposed to turn to the social media platform in their day-to-day jobs. And if only some workers engage with the platform, its utility is greatly reduced. 

You Can’t Force Workers To Be Social

Too often, enterprises overlook the importance of organic adoption of social media. You can’t just flick a switch and turn on a social network – and an email from the CEO won’t work either. Instructions to go social from the IT department are even more likely to ignored. 

The appeal of these platforms lies in the very fact that they grow and evolve network connections at their own pace – as users find them helpful and engaging. Social media tools do make it easier to establish those connections, but it’s not something you can force.

That’s why, when I read news like Salesforce may be moving away from its social enterprise channel and focusing more on cloud computing, I’m not surprised.

ZDNet writer Dan Dignan points out other reasons that help explain why social enterprise seems to be failing. My personal favorite? That social enterprise is like a cleverly disguised version of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP). And that dog just won’t hunt. “ERP software changed companies fundamentally, but also led to spectacular IT disasters largely due to people, process and culture. Social with business process integration won’t work.”

So does that mean the entire concept of social enterprise is doomed?

Not necessarily. The gigant-o, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink enterprise social platforms imposed from the top are indeed in trouble. But targeted tools that companies and their employees pick and choose to bring social techniques to specific projects and use cases may still find success. But that’s still a much-reduced vision of the social enterprise’s original promise 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.