But, while “fans claim that new social-networking offerings now being developed for the corporate world will create huge benefits for businesses,” many companies remain skeptical. “There is plenty of doubt about the benefits of online social networking in the office. A survey of 1,400 chief information officers conducted last year by Robert Half Technology, a recruitment firm, found that only one-tenth of them gave employees full access to such networks during the day, and that many were blocking Facebook and Twitter altogether.”
Other studies have reached similar conclusions, such as this recent State of Workforce Technology Adoption conducted by Forrester Research. It found that while most enterprises agree that collaboration tools are important for members of a team, - especially if that team is distributed across many locations, - such tools are not widely adopted. e-mail, with 87% adoption, is the default collaboration tool for most people in business.
This is a particular problem for younger workers, who are widely using social media technologies outside of work. The Forrester study found that sixty percent of workers under thirty use social networking at home, but less than one quarter of them - 13% - also use such technologies at work.
Why are so many companies reluctant to embrace social networking? One of the articles in The Economist special report focused on this question - Yammering away at the office: a distraction or a bonus? “An astonishing amount of time is being wasted on investigating the amount of time being wasted on social networks,” it provocatively starts out saying, and then adds: “Studies regularly claim that the use of Twitter, Facebook and other such services poses a threat to corporate wealth.”
The article goes on to to list several hurdles that social networks must clear before they can enter the corporate mainstream. First is the question whether social networking is all hype. Do they deliver real, measurable value to the business? While we can argue that social networks increase collaboration within and outside the company, their value propositions are soft, that is, more supported by anecdotal evidence than extensive research and quantitative results. This is good enough for believers, but not for skeptics.
Those worried about the use of social networks in business often mention their fear that staff might use them to broadcast politically incorrect comments. This fear seems groundless. Employees already have access to social networks through their personal PCs and mobile devices, so they need not wait for corporate sanctioned channels should they wish to post inappropriate comments. Better to deal with the issue directly, by providing guidance to employees on the proper use of social networks.
For example, a few years ago IBM invited employees to help create a set of guidelines and practical advice on how to best use social media. The resulting IBM Social Computing Guidelines offer helpful, common sense advice. It both encourages employees to explore the potential of social media, but also reminds them of their responsibilities and obligations.
Perhaps the real reason why so many managers are uncomfortable with social networks is the fear of losing control over their employees, who now have tools that enable them to easily collaborate with colleagues and friends inside and outside the company. Of course, such individual and community empowerment is precisely the key value of social networks. Rather than relying on rigid hierarchic structures and formal meetings, social networks encourage employees throughout the organization to work together, innovate by self-organizing into communities of interest, and collaborate with each other in tackling the toughest, most complex problems facing the business.
The Economist article points out: “To veterans of the technology industry, the fuss over social networking sounds all too familiar. Whenever a new and disruptive technology appears, there is initially a backlash against it before it becomes broadly accepted.”
This is particularly true for applications that were not designed for businesses, but enter companies through the consumer world. Whereas in the past, people got access to leading edge technologies through their companies, ever since the advent of the Internet and World Wide Web in the late 1990s that has no longer been true.
“Thanks to companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook, people now have access to communications devices and web applications that are often far superior to those offered by their employers. And thanks to cloud computing, which allows all sorts of computing services to be delivered via the internet, they can use these devices and applications pretty much wherever they like, including in offices and factories. This trend is accelerating as more digitally savvy youngsters enter the workforce with their iPhones at the ready.”
One of the most interesting efforts to measure the value of collaboration to a business is a project being conducted at the Deloitte Center for the Edge. The project has been studying the impact of digital technologies on the long-term transformation of the global business environment. They are rendering explicit and measuring the major drivers behind this historical transformation, and have come up with a set of measures which they call The Shift Index. Their ideas and methodologies are described in this report: Measuring the forces of long-term change: The 2009 Shift Index.
The Shift Index includes the intriguing concept of knowledge flows. In the past, our stocks of knowledge, - what we know, - was a great source of economic value. That is no longer the case, because the increasing rate of change all around us is rapidly obsolescing knowledge. Therefore, the real economic value has now moved from the stocks of knowledge to the flows of new knowledge that we are now able to quickly acquire, and thus refresh and expand our rapidly depleting stocks of knowledge.
Value creation has thus been shifting from protecting proprietary knowledge, to fostering collaboration, both within the company and beyond its boundaries, in order to help the firm participate in as broad and diverse a range of knowledge flows and thus improve its competitive position. It is within this context that one has to consider the business value of social networks, and their impact in helping people better connect with each other, and build sustaining relationships that enhance knowledge flows and innovation.
The traditional, industrial age hierarchic organization must evolve. Firms must embrace more flexible organizational structures, better suited to help them reach out, absorb and integrate all the knowledge flows, expertise and talent out there. The Internet, social networks and related communication technologies are helping create such flexible organizations, as well as having a huge impact on the way people collaborate and generally relate to each other. That, in the end, is their real value to the business.