Social networking in business: plan less for less pain

Productivity loss, information leakage, and defamation of fellow employees are all enough to get us fired from our jobs, unless, of course, it is done under the guise of a social network for the enterprise 2.0.

Businesses are beginning to grapple with the emergence of a culture of IT self-service among employees and the savvy leaders will harness, rather than hinder, the use of external hosted applications, including social networking, according to a group of IT professionals.

Speaking on a panel about social networking for business at the Enterprise 2.0 Executive Forum in Sydney, representatives from insurance company AMP, consulting firm Deloitte and IT analyst firm Forrester Research, agreed that rapid adoption of external applications by employees is here to stay so the challenge is how to leverage this culture shift.

Annalie Killian, AMP’s catalyst for magic [actual title], said social networks have helped dissolve any boundaries between the inside and outside of the organisation.

“I communicate with colleagues via Facebook as much as e-mail,” Killian said.

AMP tried to “experiment” with Yammer for in-house social networking, but it didn't get enough uptake and people started to use Twitter “without being told”.

“It happened organically so I think why try and implement another enterprise tool when all the fish are at Twitter. I don't want to manage Twitter.”

Killian said in an enterprise where there is rigidity around implementing change giving people freedom to use the tools they are comfortable with is often the most useful way to start an IT project.

“I've never tried to get a new technology in place by starting with a business case as I will have grandchildren before I get it through,” she said. “I just start it small. I quickly start playing with stuff and think laterally about how it would be good for the business. Then I find like-minded souls playing with the tools and it circles out from there.”

Over at Deloitte Digital, CEO Peter Williams didn’t have much of a choice but to accept Facebook because some 30 per cent of his staff were already using it before it was even considered as a business application.

“The business case proved itself. If 30 per cent people using tech we didn't ask them to and they are combining work and social networking – that's the best roll out of technology we've ever had,” Williams said. “We could do it internally, but that would be a pain so we just standardised on Facebook and build applications around that.”

Williams has noticed “deeper connections” between staff can be formed with social networks, not just in a work environment.

“There is a thing called ‘weak tie networks’ where you get more done through a friend of a friend and not immediate contacts,” he said, adding the network effect model is creating opportunities for business growth.

Forrester Research senior analyst Steven Noble said social networks are “the easiest and the hardest” technology to build a business case for because the benefits are largely “soft”.

“Finding someone quickly is a real benefit, but you are not likely to get funding for that,” Noble said. “On the other hand, it should be easy to build a business case for social networking as the core functionality is pretty simple. For example, integrated collaboration tools, blogging and SharePoint will all build profile capabilities and that is a social network.”

Noble said social networks will increasingly become the “glue” that binds applications together.

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Not so fast, that’s my company data

An increasing headache for businesses living in the closed-shop IT world is the amount of potential there is for social networking employees to leak sensitive data to a third-party or publicise potentially damaging information about people that otherwise wouldn’t have traveled beyond the water cooler.

Deloitte’s Williams summed up the situation by saying “trying to get something back from the Internet is like trying to get pee out of a swimming pool”.

The explosion in third-party social networking tools in business has made it all to easy – whether deliberate or not – to cast information outside the firewall.

“Don't take videos of yourself having sex with another organism, particularly yourself!” Williams said.

“It goes down to organisational culture. If your organisation has a culture of back-stabbing then it will happen on social networks. Saying we should ban social networks is like saying we should ban phone calls and e-mail.”

And just because more of today’s employees have a public soap box “that doesn't give you a licence to hang sh*t on someone”.

“We say don't diss each other and we have a culture of openness so it goes with the turf,” Williams said. “It’s the same with editing wikis and people leaving rotting food in the fridge, there is a certain level of self-regulation.”

Employee behavioural control in the Web 2.0 age comes with the standard terms and conditions for all IT system use at Deloitte.

“Don't make them 30 pages long and have a ‘be smart, use judgment’ mantra.”

At AMP similar rules apply.

“We are trying hard to have a small and simple social media policy as possible – be smart,” Killian said, adding the company still doesn't have a “great” social media policy and is still talking about it.

“We have a live and let live policy unless a complaint is raised. We also have a lot of introverts in the organisation. It's different strokes for different folks and it's not a massive problem.”

Killian said a lot of companies want to see social networking fail in order to “sell you some security software or something”.

“When you sign up for your own blog there is a three-line guideline statement saying ‘don't put up anything offensive’ and we then let the community self-regulate,” she said. “Most people are sensible”.

We live in an age where employers will “Google you before they hire you” so don't release anything to the Internet you don't want others to see, according to Killian.

“Companies tend to focus on boundaries and not what flourishes inside them,” she said.

Forrester’s Noble agrees with Williams in that if people use social networks to badmouth others the organization itself has a problem and taking away that avenue won’t fix it.

Noble said as personal brands become something we all have and showcase things we are proud of and things we are not so proud of, organisations will be more forgiving of this increasing “openness”.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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