Lots of companies are dabbling in web 2.0. I say "dabbling" not to imply dilettantism, but to reflect the tentative, experimental approach most companies are taking. They implement a bookmarking service here or a company-wide wiki there, a blog or a social networking service as a prototype, and then try to encourage employees to use them. And the results are fairly predictable. There is a moderate level of participation early on and some enthusiastic devotees who preach the gospel of web 2.0 to others. But ultimately, usage tends to stall or even drop off before any critical mass can be achieved.
And let's not fool ourselves; critical mass is essential. Without sufficient numbers of people using these services as part of their day-to-day activities (rather than as a one-time trial separate from "real work") the services will falter. There is no social computing without an active, vibrant society.
What is the alternative? Well, it isn't to assume social computing can brazenly take the place of well-established corporate systems (such as email or intranet web sites). Neither can you run them as two wholly separate systems covering the same function. Your employees simply cannot accept that sort of schizophrenic behavior.
Any company planning to adopt web 2.0 has to first accept two basic facts about corporate life and then take several steps to ensure their web 2.0 efforts are successful. The two basic facts that need to be accepted are:
- A business is not a democracy. It cannot be run by the wisdom of the crowd. You can delegate responsibility, but ultimately management is responsible (legally and financially) and will dictate the direction of the company.
- Employees are individuals and will decide for themselves whether they believe a decision, a direction, or an activity is good or bad. That doesn't mean they won't follow orders (except in extreme cases) but it will significantly impact the performance and effectiveness of any process, to the point of influencing what business efforts succeed and which fail.
The consequence of these realities is that there are at least two social cultures within any corporation: the official organizational manager-employee relationship and the unofficial lunch room culture. Official announcements travel through the first network. Gossip travels through the second network. The first is strictly hierarchical and well defined. The second is dynamic, amorphous, and ever changing.
Both cultures need to exist. They intersect, interact, and influence each other, but neither can survive alone.
So what does this have to do with social computing? Social computing is the physical manifestation of and vehicle for the informal network. Blogs are not hierarchical. Wikis are democratic (or possibly even socialist). They are not an appropriate channel for official management communication -- although they are a very good channel for discussing official communications.
Similarly, the corporate intranet and applications such as the employee directory, expense forms, organizational charts, etc are the representation of the official hierarchical network. The corporate intranet portal is -- at least in part if not in toto -- a controlled communication vehicle of the management structure.
Just as the formal and informal networks must co-exist, the tools, applications, and web sites that support them must co-exist, not compete. What this means is that where the cultures intersect, the tools should intersect as well. So, very pragmatically, the following actions are needed at specific points of intersection:
Search & User-Generated Content:
- The intranet portal is the masthead of the official culture. However, search is the employees' gateway to all knowledge. Unfortunately, in many companies, search and the portal are seen as one (and managed by the same organization). In these cases, search is often restricted to only crawling "official" intranet sites and much user-generated content (such as blogs, wikis, forums, etc) is excluded.
- If your social computing efforts are going to succeed, they must be included in the corporate search index. Preferably, search will allow scoping so users can choose whether to search official material or user-generated content or both.
Employee Directory & Social Networking:
- The employee directory is usually managed by HR, which is logical since they manage the employees' official status (name, address, job classification, and position in the organizational hierarchy). If the company is also experimenting with social networking, the user-managed profiles will compete with the employee directory.
- The employee directory and any user-generated profiles should be connected. Preferably, this means the employee directory will display both HR maintained and user-managed content as a single page. At worst, the HR-managed directory should include links to the user's personal profile and other personal content (such as blogs and bookmarks). These links should be automated to ensure completeness.
Corporate Intranet Banner & Tagging, Bookmarks, Etc:
- Most large corporate intranets have a standard web banner that gives a consistent look & feel to intranet sites and provides links to common functions such as the portal home page, search, etc.
- If the corporation is experimenting with social tagging, bookmarks, or commentary (ala Digg), these functions should be embedded in the corporate banner. Why? The logic goes like this: the reason for running an internal service is to tag, bookmark, or comment on internal sites. (Otherwise why not use the existing external services?) If the employees have to find a page they want to tag, then have to manually visit the internal service, it is just too much work. They could use logos within the page as you see on internet sites. However, this would require all intranet site owners putting in the appropriate code. An unlikely thing to happen. By having the service accessible from the banner, it is automatically included on all intranet sites and employees are constantly reminded the service(s) exist and tagging becomes a single click activity.
Can social computing activities survive without these actions? Yes. Will they flourish or reach their potential? I'm afraid not.