What if you threw a party and nobody came? That's what seems to be happening in the world of business social networking. In our personal lives, nearly everyone is on Facebook, and lots of us are on Twitter and Pinterest. In our professional lives, many of us use LinkedIn to stay in touch with colleagues and associates -- in case we need a new job or are hiring. But the use of social networking within the office appears to be small, despite the constant noise by vendors and management about trial efforts. Many end up just wasting everyone's time and effort. (There's little actual data, so I'm going on what I observe and hear anecdotally.)
If you step back and think about it, the reasons for the lack of uptake are obvious. They're not a lot different from the failure of corporate intranets a decade ago, which also were to be the social hub of the modern enterprise.
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Socializing is not what businesses want
It always amazes me that managers and vendors yammer on and on about the value of social networking at work when, in fact, that's not what companies want. They don't want employees posting pictures of their kids, sharing funny videos featuring animals, comparing their stance on Team Jacob vs. Team Edward, or describing their out-of-control birthday bash. Nor do they care for the corporate equivalents, such as rumors as to who might be having an affair, which manager most resembles Pee-wee Herman, or how much sales spent on that team-building trip for sushi and cycling gear.
All sorts of sticky HR issues come up when people socialize freely in a business session -- what happens in the office doesn't stay in the office. Then there's the concern many companies have about employees wasting time, though oddly, many firms pushing business social networking tools also block employees' access to Facebook, Angry Birds, and the like.
What companies have long wanted is better collaboration across a distributed workforce, even as they've grown larger and more geographically disperse. Thanks to email and the Internet, companies want to have their cake and eat it too, replicating the kind of collaboration that can occur within a specific office across thousands of people. That's a tall order, but the global Internet has let management dare to dream that local offices need not be distinct and isolated from each other. And through email, phone conferencing, instant messaging, wikis, and Facebook- and Twitter-like tools, some companies and even multicompany groups have made big strides to realizing this vision for specific projects and workgroups.
But by portraying it as a social goal, businesses immediately fail. Employees see the disconnect and shine on the latest management "let's all adopt social networking" exhortations. They remember the corporate intranet project that no one ever goes to. Or they point to the president's blog intended to "communicate directly to our valued employees," but stopped being updated after two entries or simply parroted the latest company press release.