Social business apps' weakness: Being social

Facebook and Twitter are the wrong models to follow when deploying social business apps. Think this way instead

Everyone, it seems, is offering a social app for business these days, trading on the broad popularity of personal social sites like Facebook. Yet the message from businesses far and wide is that their social initiatives usually go nowhere, wasting lots of money and time and confirming some employees' suspicions about management and IT competence.

Here's a radical idea: Stop trying to make apps social. The workplace is not a collection of friends and family sharing personal updates, rumors, and the like, so labeling business tools as social simply doesn't make sense. In fact, it can send a controdictory message: "Be open with us and your colleagues, and note everything you say is recorded and subject to disciplinary action." Is it any surprise internal social networks are ignored by anyone with half a brain? It's no different than all those intranet sites that lay unused when that notion was a business fad a decade ago.

[ InfoWorld's Galen Gruman explains the fallacy of business social networking. • Robert Scheier shows where businesses can get real value from social tech. | Subscribe to InfoWorld's Consumerization of IT newsletter today. ]

"The word 'social' doesn't help. You need to break down to core components to understand what that functionality is best applied," says Forrester analyst Ted Schadler. "The industry way overpromises and underdelivers. It saw Facebook and Twitter and said, 'We can use this in business. We have no idea how to use it, but we we love it as consumers, so we must be able to use it in business.'" As a result, many businesses and social app vendors use the "wrong metaphor," imposing a made-up process that doesn't make sense. "There's a lack of realization that how people work is how people work. ... It's really hard to get people to change how they work."

He's right: Businesses don't need social tools, but they need collaboration and communications tools. Businesses don't need to reinvent human interplay at work as if it were a virtual party, but they need to help people work together to achieve the desired creative, efficiency, and other results from that collaboration.

Of course, human interactions by definition are social, and you get more useful collaboration if you encourage constructive dialog -- that is, get people to engage. Call that human factor "engagement," not "social," and focus on what you really want. Engagement is critical to collaboration, but engagement for its own sake is not critical at all. "When companies deploy social software for social's sake, it's ineffective. When they deploy social software tied to specific work processes, it can be transformational," says Nathan Rawlins, vice president of product marketing at Jive Software. He's right, too.

Engagement is not the only human factor that matters. "For a collaboration tool to be used broadly, it has to satisfy lots of use cases without becoming so broad that it satisfies none of them," Rawlins notes. "Too frequently, collaboration projects are treated as IT infrastructure: Here are new tools, you figure out how to use them."

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