The viral nature of social media is both a blessing and a curse, and this holds true for IT as much as it does for end users. These tools are everywhere, readily accessible and, for most, irresistible. We all know about the most popular social media sites – LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, etc. Some truly do have value to businesses, but most are purely social, with dubious value to the working world. As such, they are a mixed bag for enterprises and need to be better understood to ensure that there is a net benefit.
This article touches on some of these issues but looks first at social media in a broader context. Social media can be anything that enables us to interact with others, and the tools are ever-evolving. Aside from the sites mentioned above, other popular examples include Twitter, Second Life, Flickr and YouTube. A common denominator is how they enable some form of sharing, either for personal/lifestyle information or user-generated content. There is a strong herd mentality here, and it is not unusual for people to be actively engaged with several of these.
The phenomenon is Internet-based, which creates immediate challenges for IT managers. These tools and platforms may be wildly popular, but they operate beyond the control of the corporate network. With work and home lives becoming more and more intertwined, it is very difficult to establish around the use of these tools the clear policies that will be needed in order to derive tangible benefit for the business. There is no denying that social media have become firmly entrenched, especially with the Internet generation, and to be on the right side of change, enterprises need to accept this.
Stepping back further, however, we must look at social media in the broader context of how the Internet is changing the nature of work. One does not have to look far to see that we have too many ways of communicating already, and if we cannot even manage everyday email, how will we possibly be any further ahead with social media? Studies routinely show that we typically lose up to three hours a day just managing email, and the problem is only getting worse.
Both enterprises and vendors are trying to address this in their own ways. Some companies are advocating email-free Fridays or placing limits on BlackBerry usage during weekends. Vendors like IBM and Microsoft are applying network intelligence capabilities – such as presence – to develop predictive tools that will better manage the flow of emails to minimize unwanted interruptions. Google recently introduced a feature called E-Mail Addict, which allows people to disable their inboxes for 15-minute intervals.
Everyone in the value chain has a vested interest in making the workplace more productive, and social media pose a far greater challenge than email. Aside from the fact that most of this activity takes place beyond the corporate network, some forms of social media – such as Second Life – are virtual. Participants can be anonymous, creating avatar personas that are very different from their real identities. This is a form of social networking that is quite unlike platforms such as LinkedIn, which are primarily for professional networking.
While the anonymity of a virtual world invites less-than-honorable behavior, it also presents forums for engagement not possible in the real world. Many of these -- multimedia conferencing, corporate training, interactive customer support, real-time product demonstrations -- can be of great value for enterprises. There are some basic issues about personal privacy and network security to address, but these can be managed, and enterprises need to start looking at these tools in more of a business context.
There is no doubt we have opened a Pandora's Box with social media, and no amount of network policing is going to make it go away. Humans are social by nature and never have had so many options to work with. Enterprises need to accept this reality and, rather than focus on ways to minimize it, should seek to develop best practices based on how employees utilize these technologies. To some extent, this will involve technology-based tools that allow people to more effectively manage, filter and act upon social media. Presence is a key enabler of social media, and we are just beginning to see applications that leverage network intelligence along these lines.
More of these will undoubtedly emerge, but the main message to close out this article is to look beyond technology for the answers. Social media may be a product of the Internet, but the users are people. Many of the concerns around how all these tools hurt productivity are based on how they affect our behavior. They will become productivity enablers only when our behaviors change in the right way. As such, IT cannot address the problem only by writing more code or implementing more rules about using network resources. Enterprises need a broader vision to engage employees – especially those who are tech savvy – along with internal functions such as HR, business development and customer care management.
There is no template for doing this, but given the nature of social media and the challenges we all have managing the ever-expanding world of communications technologies, the road ahead needs to be bigger than IT. Striking the right balance with social media goes well beyond making employees more productive in their jobs with the resources provided by IT. They will also collaborate more effectively, contributing to better corporate performance. By empowering them with the tools they routinely use in their personal lives, employees will be easier to retain. Similarly, companies that embrace social media will become employers of choice for the Internet generation, making top talent easier to attract.
Looking out, social media open up new ways to engage with customers and prospects, shorten sales cycles and tap new revenue streams. The task will not be easy, but when viewed in this broader context, the potential for social media in the enterprise is too great to pass up.
Jon Arnold is Principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications. Previously, he was the VoIP Program Leader at Frost & Sullivan, where he was responsible for managing their subscription service for Global VoIP Equipment Markets. VoIP News has included Jon on their 2007 Top 25 VoIP Blogs list, and his widely read IP Communications blog was recently rated the #4 VoIP blog. He is also a Gerson Lehrman Group Scholar, where his advice is regularly sought out by the finance and investment community.