The Pitfalls, and Potential, of Corporate Social Networks
It could be tempting to conclude that because your employees enjoy keeping a personal blog or spending time with contacts on social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, that they would want to participate in an internal corporate version of those sites. But don't be so sure.
A new study has found that the phenomenon of social networking and collaboration does not yet have a natural extension behind the enterprise firewall.
According to a research note,published by Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner, employees may be reluctant to expend the time and effort in keeping up a blog or community profile when they would be prevented from accessing the information if they leave the company,
Brian Prentice, the analyst who wrote the paper, which is based on his observations and conversations with companies and software vendors, says knowledge workers that understand the value of social networking may be loath to use corporate social technologies, particularly when Internet-based services provide the same benefits without the loss of what they perceive to be their personal intellectual property. For example, he says contributing to a blog has the potential of improving a worker's reputation and increasing marketability. If an employee posts on a corporate blog, the employer owns the content and therefore retains it if the employee starts working somewhere else.
By contrast, if the employee is selected to be an expert contributor on Google's forthcoming Knols project, a user-generated online encyclopedia, the employee gets to reap the benefits in perpetuity. However, intellectual property concerns are not pervasive.
Joe Schueller, IT innovation manager at Cincinnati, OH-based Procter & Gamble, has been very involved with the manufacturer's rollout of roughly 300 corporate blogs, says he is not aware of employees expressing such concerns.
Wikis—browser-based workspaces that allow large groups of people to view and edit documents and post project updates, for example—have been a mixed bag at P&G. The most active and successful wikis are those in which the knowledge being shared has no cause for provocation, such as for business best practices or travel tips. But when it comes to collaboration about more sensitive topics, like competitive intelligence, adoption has been low but not for the reasons Gartner cites.
"There is a culture of participation and collaboration that companies need to adopt," Schueller explains. "If any company with more than 500 employees has that figured out, I would be pretty impressed."
Mike Dover, a vice president at New Paradigm, a Toronto-based think tank that investigates technology's affect on business, says he has heard about employees wanting to protect their work, but they tend to be both in the minority and older. Indeed, at P&G, younger workers are more comfortable with blogging and collaborating on Wikis, says Schuller.
When it comes to corporate social networks where employees can maintain a professional profile and keep up with co-workers and their projects, Gartner's Prentice says workers will always want to maintain external networks and will therefore dislike the idea of creating and maintaining profiles on multiple social networking sites. For now, Prentice advises, it would behoove most companies to use recognized sites on the Internet for keeping up with colleagues.
Not so, according to Mike Dover, who says that workers, by and large, would prefer to invest the time it would take to keep their personal and professional lives separate. "The idea of having your boss on a Facebook page is unappealing to many people," he says. "People want to have that type of separation."
Social Networks Still Unproven in Corporate Environments
The very notion of a strictly internal corporate social network is a red herring, according to Prentice's findings. It remains to be seen, he says, whether the kinds of activities in which workers participate on Facebook and LinkedIn resemble anything they'd want to do in the corporate setting. Moreover, he says there is still little evidence to suggest that collaborative software will be a success.
That shouldn't stop companies from experimenting, says Prentice, but he recommends doing so on a component-by-component basis versus implementing a suite of collaborative tools.
P&G's Schuller agrees: "This is all a grand experiment to find out whether social media can work in an environment that is, at the end of the day, hierarchical," he says. "That's why we're trying to get so many pilots and experiments up."