You can have philosophical debates about the revolutionary impact of web 2.0; how the "wisdom of crowds" can change the way business is done, harnessing the combined potential of thousands of employees, etc. But for the time being, these arguments are completely theoretical. Speaking pragmatically -- from a purely practical perspective -- what are the pros and cons that would cause a corporation to deploy social software internally, beyond simple speculation?
The Cart Before the Horse
The fact is, attempts to utilize web 2.0 within the corporate firewalls have -- from all reports -- been sporadic and slow to develop thus far. It is easy to see why.
- Despite all the predictions that younger employees -- Gen X, Gen Y, and millenials -- will expect or insist on social software at work, the fact is they might not. Those employees who have already embraced social networking outside the company will have no great impetus to create a separate social network inside the firewall. The potential audience -- and therefore benefits -- are dramatically smaller and require duplicate effort. For example, if I am using del.icio.us for bookmarks, why would I want a separate, incompatible set of bookmarks just for work-related data? It's just too much effort.
- Employees not using social software today have no experience with it and so will feel little compunction or interest in using it internally.
- As mentioned before, the difference between millions (or hundreds of millions) of users on the internet and a few hundred or thousand employees inside the firewall is non-trivial. It is unclear whether there is sufficient critical mass within a company -- even a large company -- to make social software "work". There is simply not enough of a "crowd" to get wisdom from.
- Finally there are all the usual disincentives for using new applications within a corporation: not part of my job, overlaps with existing apps, can't waste time on pilots or prototypes that might go away...
Given these issues, the question ought to be: is it more beneficial to "roll your own" social network or could companies be more effective by really embracing change and using the existing public services? For example, why not just create a separate FaceBook group for your company and encourage employees to use it?
The fact is that there are at least three significant reasons for a company creating their own web 2.0 infrastructure internally.
- Security. First and foremost, the "network" inside the firewall can be far richer -- but at the same time more sensitive -- than the generalized social networks on the public internet. Corporate employees already have a point of connection, their employment, to tie them together. But there is a significant danger of proprietary -- or at least embarrassing -- information being exposed if a company's employees use an external service to develop company-based social networks. For large companies, in particular, this is likely to be a show-stopper requiring an internal infrastructure even if it is purely a replicate of externally-available services.
- Consistency. The corporate intranet is neither a democracy nor a competitive marketplace. Any good idea on the web has imitators and so individuals have several choices for social networking (MySpace, FaceBook, Orkut...) or bookmarks (del.icio.us, ma.gnolia, reddit...), or video (YouTube, Veoh, Flixya...). Sheer volume can allow each to be successful. But they can also create problems, as people often need to create multiple profiles to connect with friends who are on multiple services. Within the corporation you can insist on a unique service for each, significantly reducing confusion and the dilution of the crowd effect. Whether this uniqueness makes up for the significantly reduced overall audience is unclear, but it may.
- Integration. Perhaps the greatest advantage companies have implementing web 2.0 inside the firewall is the ability to integrate the services. For companies with single sign-on (i.e. unique digital identifiers for their employees) it is possible to automate the connectivity between multiple web 2.0 technologies as well as traditional corporate data. Rather than separate accounts (one for a social network, one for bookmarks, one for photos...) inside the firewall a person's identity are tied to a single ID, which can be used to merge content. When creating a profile, all of someone's basic information (location, email, role, etc) can be pulled automatically from the corporate directory. Only personal preferences and context needs to be added. In the same way, a person's membership in internal groups, forums, or businesses can be automatically linked to their profile. Photos can be entered once and used throughout the corporation etc. This type of linking has always been possible. The change with web 2.0 is giving the individual control of what that data is that is shared.
For small companies (100 employees or less), it may be possible to embrace the openness of social computing and utilize external services such as FaceBook* for all of their social interactions. But for even moderately sized companies, the need for privacy and security will drive them to institute social computing (if they do at all) inside the firewall.
Despite the drawbacks to internal deployment, the ability to integrate multiple social applications -- along with existing corporate data -- though unique IDs provides corporations with an opportunity to build social networks that are more technically powerful than anything currently possible outside the firewall.** However, even with this potential value, there are some realities that any company must face implementing web 2.0:
- Adoption will not be anywhere near as "viral" internally as equivalent services on the public web (for all the reasons given above).
- Implementing only one web 2.0 service as a "pilot" has little if any chance of success (again, for reasons previously mentioned).
- The previous limitation might be overcome by piggybacking web 2.0 functionality on top of existing corporate services. For example, adding personal biographies or tagging to an existing company white pages provides the new services with a large, pre-established audience. Similarly, adding social functions such as tagging and bookmarking into the corporate intranet banner (where standard banners exist) allows the services to reach the majority of intranet web sites with no additional work for web masters.
* footnote: In fact, for small companies, their entire infrastructure could be built on free services such as Facebook, Yahoo Groups, GoogleDocs, etc. Although I don't know of any companies doing this today, it is clear that an infrastructure-less company is possible, even without paying for commercial SaaS offerings.
**footnote: OpenID offers some of the promise of unique IDs in the public realm. But its potential is still nascent and seriously offset by competing services. For example, I receive requests to "connect" on a regular basis from at least three separate professional networks similar to LinkedIn . The benefit of any one of these networks is significantly diminished by the existence of the others. Thus far I have chosen to simply ignore requests from services I do not already have a profile on because it is too much trouble to maintain multiple profiles for a single purpose.