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It's always interesting to see the progression in both corporate attitudes--and vendor responses to those attitudes--when it comes to enterprise social networking. After attending UBM TechWeb's Enterprise 2.0 Conference the last few years, along with covering enterprise social networking since its beginnings, I've seen regular changes in how enterprise social networking is perceived and what the main challenges facing its adoption are.
Part of the challenge is overcoming the myths that get attached to the technology. These myths or assumptions often are tossed around as reasons why a company won't be adopting an enterprise social networking solution. In the end, these are just excuses.
In fact, most of the assumptions I hear from companies about enterprise social networking are either wrong or outdated--they were once somewhat correct, but things have changed.
So what are the biggest myths surrounding enterprise social networking and its adoption? Here's my top five:
1. Gen Y workers get it but older workers won't
I'm sure you've heard this comment thrown around many times, by social networking vendors, analysts, and companies looking at enterprise social networking. It generally goes something like, "Young people have grown up using this stuff but the older workers don't understand it and will stick with email and other legacy systems."
When I hear this, I usually want to ask, "Have you been on Facebook recently?" I have a split of under 35 and over 35 friends and age seems to play little role in how often they use the network. In fact, some of the busiest users who take advantage of the most Facebook features are over 55.
I wouldn't worry about your older users "getting" the enterprise social network. There's actually some evidence that younger people are moving on from Facebook and other social networks. That young people have moved on to the something newer and cooler and will no longer use enterprise social networks may soon be a myth too.
2. It's like Facebook for your company
Speaking of Facebook, another common myth or misconception is that enterprise social networks will work just like Facebook, but with a corporate angle. Of course, there is some truth to this, as many of the interface and feature conventions are similar or directly copied from Facebook.
But these are completely different beasts. A corporate training video and The Hangover are both videos of people talking and doing things but no one would call them the same thing.
The other problem with the Facebook comparison is that it can lead to unrealistic expectations of usage.
Yes, many people spend vast amounts of time on Facebook checking friend's updates and posting their own information. If, however, you expect that level of interaction from employees on your company social network, you will definitely be disappointed.
Enterprise social networks are simply the next phase in corporate collaboration and communications and you should expect them to be used in the same fashion. Users may find them to be vital tools for staying in touch with colleagues, collaborating, and maintaining company knowledge. But they won't use it in the same way that they use Facebook.
3. Enterprise social networks need to be sticky
Speaking of systems that users spend a lot of time with, there are probably already applications and systems in your business that employees use on a regular basis. This could be email, a company intranet, Google Apps, or some other enterprise application or interface. Odds are your users aren't going to abandon this interface in order to spend lots of time on the new company social network.
Luckily, they probably won't need to. While it was true that in recent years many Enterprise 2.0 products existed as their own separate web interfaces, many are now adopting methods to make it easier to embed their interfaces and information into other tools and interfaces.
In this way, users can see status updates, new content, and other communications from the social network while performing their regular day-to-day job. The social network doesn't need to be sticky, but it does need to be well connected.
4. Social networks aren't secure
Another common complaint is that a company can't adopt one of these systems because they aren't secure. Company communications could be compromised, sensitive files could be easily lost or stolen and compliance with regulations will be impossible.
All of these concerns are legitimate, but no more so than for any other enterprise application, whether its email, document management, or CRM. The ultimate security of a product depends upon what it offers and how companies implemented it, rather than the product category itself.
A look at the current enterprise social networking offerings shows a good base set of security options that one would find in any enterprise product. These include single sign-on, integration with company directories and VPNs, and the option to run the product inside company firewalls and not just in a SaaS mode.
Many products also provide more fine-grained control over communications and file sharing that can not only help track how information is created and used, but also make sure that only those with appropriate permissions can access information.
5. Businesses don't need enterprise social networking
It is, of course, completely true that no business needs social networking, but that's probably also true of 80% of the enterprise technologies available today. There are really only a small handful of products that companies absolutely need.
But that doesn't mean that enterprise social networks can't be useful or even vital for many businesses. Just as public social networks have changed the way that people connect and interact, enterprise social networks can have a big impact on worker productivity and collaboration.
Having constant knowledge of what people and groups are doing and working on, what the key issues of the day within a company are, and who the most knowledgeable colleagues are on certain topics can pay big dividends.
Myths and assumptions won't decide the fate of your company's enterprise social network. In the end, having the right implementation plan and making sure that the network is designed to make it easy and useful for workers will be the deciding factor in the success of your social network and your company.
InformationWeek contributing editor Jim Rapoza has been using, testing, and writing about the newest technologies in software, enterprise hardware, and the Internet for more than 17 years.
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