Monday, October 22, 2007

The Threat of Social Software, Part 3

(continued from Part 2)

So, if web 2.0 is not going to transform how business is done and it’s not going to infiltrate the corporate intranet without being modified, permuted, tamed, and subdued… what, if any, is the threat of social software? The real threat is that it makes the corporate intranet irrelevant.

The threat is not what it might potentially do inside the firewall but what it is doing, as we speak, outside the castle walls. Of those millions and millions of people flocking to MySpace, Flickr, Digg, Twitter, and other sites, a significant number are members of the white and blue collar classes in the United States and elsewhere.

Granted, much of the time spent on these sites is personal. But some amount – a growing percentage I suspect – is professional. Because, unlike corporations that make a clear distinction between work and personal life (inside vs. outside the firewall, work time vs. personal time) individual employees tend to move fluidly between one and the other, often combining them. We have personal conversations in the office; we discuss work at home; we tend to mingle with people with similar interests…

In the past this intermingling of personal and business life had been restricted by the limits of one’s own community: the town you live in, the people you talk to, the clubs you frequent. There were opportunities to exchange mail or phone calls and possibly meet once or twice a year at professional conferences, but not much else.

Now there is a generation that was raised in a virtual world and has lived much of their personal life online. When they reach the workplace, they expect that the easy exchange of communication and emotion extends into the corporation. In most cases it does not. And those corporations that are adopting web 2.0 technologies, are doing so specifically with the intent of maintaining the security, privacy, and control that corporate intranets are designed for. In other words, a mini web 2.0 inside the firewall.

But if I wanted to talk to people in my profession, would I contact the 3-5 information architects I have found (largely by accident) in my own company, or the hundreds or possibly thousands who are members of IAI or the SIGIA-L email list? Or I might search the blogs of the many talented and highly-visible IA’s that are readily available on the web.

Even following web 1.0 logic, if I have a technical issue with programming or managing an application (as ubiquitous as Microsoft Word or as specific as MySQL database maintenance), will I find the answer faster searching the corporate intranet or the vast knowledge accessible through Google and Yahoo? Experience teaches me the latter.

The fact is that there is far more professional and technical information publicly available and willingly shared outside the corporation than inside. This is the transformative power of web 2.0. And it is all accessible within approximately the same framework I use for my social life. This fact is emphasized by the recent developments in applications like FaceBook and LinkedIn that are helping people manage their social and business lives within a single environment outside the firewall.

So, for what we can call the MySpace Generation*, corporate efforts to restrict access and interoperability between inside and outside the firewall is purely a provincial attitude that is easily ignored in favor the better solution. Why not keep your bookmarks in Corporate security types can cry foul that internal URLs are exposed externally, but there is little they can do to stop it and it makes no sense to the individual to have to maintain two separate sets of bookmarks inside and outside. If I am on LinkedIn, what benefit is there to me maintaining a second profile on a weak copy of the technology inside the firewall? Which will gain me more exposure and contacts?

By trying to maintain the old policies of secrecy and separation, corporations are forcing modern workers to make a decision between managing their professional lives inside or outside the firewall, and in most cases the clearly more effective choice -- and the one they are familiar with -- is outside. They will do what they see as necessary to meet corporate requirements, but they see no reason not to (and many, many reasons for) sharing their personal/professional knowledge outside the firewall with their preferred community of virtual friends and professional peers.

After 15 years of downsizing, outsourcing, buyouts, booms, and busts, employees are indebted to their employers for their current situation. But no one with any intelligence or sense of history is going to assume the company is acting in their own personal best interest. Employees who effectively utilize external knowledge and contacts will prove far more successful both within their current company and with any future employer.

What we are seeing is a democratization of knowledge management as web 2.0 technologies evolve from purely social to social and professional. The communities that individuals belong to (and gain strength from) are far more extensive, less restrictive, easier to use, and in many cases far more personally productive outside the firewall than in.

The individuals themselves are recognizing that the knowledge they possess -- or have access to -- is a key source of power, prestige, and employability. (As demonstrated by the proliferation of blogs on business topics by individuals.) As lifetime employment vanishes as a concept, employees see knowledge and experience as part of their own professional personalities and one of the key leveraging points they possess.

This shift away from knowledge as the sole property of the corporation to knowledge as a professional tool owned by the individual will force corporations to rethink how they "manage" the combined intellectual capital of the company, its employees, partners, customers, former employees, and even competitors.

This is not a conflict. It is a realignment of responsibility that complements both sides. It is an old saw, but still true that knowledge increases when it is shared. And those companies that realize this and effectively support and utilize this cooperative knowledge environment are the companies that will "win".

(continued in Part 4)

* I am not fond of the term the Naked Generation that Caroline McCarthy coined, because it tends to focus on the more extreme edges of the current generation. However, it does have the advantage of capturing one of the key attributes of the times – transparency. Living your life, both private and public,out in the open on the internet is one of the identifying characteristics of the generation and one of the distinguishing marks of web 2.0 technology as well (not surprisingly).


Doug Cornelius said...

Andrew -

You highlight a great point about the "threat." Enterprise 2.0 and Web2.0 are shifting knowledge management to focus more on the "knowledge" and less on the "management."

You largely can't manage them. You monitor them, nurture them and help them grow.

One thing that HR and people who are scared of the technology can do is monitor them. The RSS feeds allow you quickly see what people are saying. You can't do that very easily with email and phone conversations.


Atul said...

Hi Andrew,

At times, there is the IP versus KM debate that chips in here, as also the issue of the way web 2.0 technologies are changing the way work is being done. Excellent post ...

I have written a bit about this ...

Thanks, Atul.