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Everyone is talking about enterprise social networking. Vendors, IT decision-makers, pundits and press predict the widespread implementation of Facebook-like social networking within the enterprise.
For example, Gartner predicts that within four years, social media will replace e-mail in one-fifth of all businesses.
Unfortunately, the global conversation reveals the industry is headed in the wrong direction.
The ideal scenario is that enterprise social networking eliminates barriers to efficient communication. Instead, we're headed for a disaster - the widespread implementation of yet another bloated, cumbersome, unusable set of communications tools to join existing ones in smothering morale and productivity.
Specifically, the conversation misses the mark because it is based on the following four mistaken assumptions.
1. Enterprise Social Networking Is the Same as Business Social Networking
No, it isn't. Business social networking is all about establishing and maintaining business contacts. Services like Linkedin are far better suited for that. By all means, embrace business social networking. But keep it separate.
Enterprise social networking is about efficient internal communication. It's about information, and the establishment and maintenance of relationships is only a means to that end.
Once you integrate conversations outside the firewall, you eliminate the free-flowing, self-organization nature of the internal web of networks, which is the whole point of enterprise social networking.
Business social networking is by definition external. Enterprise social networking should be live completely inside the firewall.
2. Enterprise Social Networking Is Related to or Connected With Public Consumer Social Networks
Some existing or proposed solutions suggest companies should use Twitter and Facebook, but with a new layer of approvals, controls and filters - plus tons of training to prevent employees from compromising company secrets or damaging the company's reputation.
This is all wrong - or, at least it's not a good model for effective enterprise social networking. First, the additional controls, especially the requirement of an approval process, simply builds in another bottleneck to getting things done. Second, the public nature of these networks eliminates any meaningful internal communication because there is far too much you can't say in public.
This approach is great for marketing and external communication, but that's different from enterprise social networking.
3. Enterprise Social Networking Should Be Integrated Into Existing Applications
Microsoft Outlook 2010 sports a new social feature called Social Connector. It pulls in information from LinkedIn and MySpace, and integrates it with e-mail. This is great because, like e-mail itself, these social networks are all about establishing connections across companies. Microsoft Sharepoint 2010 will also have hooks into Outlook. Although touted as a social network, Sharepoint is really a collaborative work tool. Again, integration into Outlook will become a welcome feature for some enterprises.
However, a real enterprise social networking tool like Microsoft OfficeTalk should be shipped and deployed as a stand-alone, un-integrated application.
The reason is that clarity, simplicity and linearity are the secrets to successful social networking. When you integrate a tool, you burden it with the other application's complexity. In the consumer space, the services that integrated social networking into their existing service, such as Digg, failed miserably in that effort because users gravitated to the stand-alone services like Facebook and Twitter.
4. Enterprise Social Networking Should Be Made "Better" Than Consumer Social Networking by the Addition of Power, Features and Capabilities
No. In fact, enterprise social networking should be made "better" by the elimination of features typically found on sites like Facebook.
Cisco Quad, IBM Lotus Connections, Socialtext, SAP StreamWork and other enterprise social networking applications boast VoIP functionality, blogs, wikis, calendar integration, project planning, instant messaging, video conferencing and other "stuff" that makes them more "powerful."
But ask yourself: Why are Facebook and Twitter so popular? How did they "beat" the hundreds of other contenders? What they have is simplicity and linearity. That's exactly what most existing and announced offerings lack.
The Ideal Enterprise Social Network
The ideal enterprise social network would do almost nothing. The goal should be to duplicate Facebook's News Feed and profiles and almost nothing else.
Here's the test: If an enterprise social networking solution requires any training at all, it should not be deployed. Its use should be absolutely obvious and brain-dead simple for anyone to use.
The idea would be for employees to follow other employees - whichever they choose. Then, they would be presented with a stream of everything those employees post. They themselves would post things, and anyone following would see it. Users should be able to "retweet" the posts of others, for flexible discoverability and easy information sharing. Finally, the whole system should be searchable.
This incredibly limited set of capabilities would transform enterprises. It would eliminate countless existing barriers to internal communication and problem solving. It would also make redundant countless meetings and "Reply-All" e-mail threads.
The information flow within the organization would be self-organizing, fast and efficient.
Instead of installing yet another overly complex, burdensome application on already overloaded employees -- and mandating training and usage, an enterprise social networking solution should be fun to use, with simplicity and minimalism its conspicuous attribute.
Enterprise social networking should enable employees to locate and connect with internal people with the right information, form ad hoc teams for information sharing, and keep everyone notified with minimal time and effort.
But if it's combined with business or public social networks, or existing enterprise applications -- or if it's made overly complex by feature bloat -- the incredible benefits of enterprise social networking will never be realized.