Of course it is, and I am sure we all agree that it opens whole new possibilities for collaboration, cooperative problem solving, participation, crowdsourcing and so forth.
At the same time, we all hear the same concerns about its use in enterprises: loss of productivity with employees following and chatting with their online friends, and risks of information leaks, with negative consequences on confidentiality, IP protection, privacy. A recent survey on the use of social software in the workplace commissioned by AT&T confirms both pros and cons, and gives some interesting views about differences in deployment (such as Germany being a more fertile place than the UK for social software deployment – could it be because of the British obsession for security?), as well as some higher-than-expected numbers for overall deployment.
While the majority of respondents claim that social networking is beneficial, about a half highlights risks on productivity and 42 percent on information leaking risks. In my conversations with government clients the latter tend to be a recurring theme, and some still wonder whether they should ban access to all social networking sites (and some actually do).
My point here is always the same. For those who have been in business long enough, do you remember the very same discussions about “should we give employees access to email?” or “should we give employees access to the Internet?”. Discussions about information leakage (for the former) and productivity losses (for both) have been going on for a while, with (few) companies and (more) agencies resisting to giving access to the email and Internet to all employees. Since then, we have developed email policies and fair Internet use policies that employees have to adhere to, and nobody in his or her right mind would ever question Internet access for employees. Mild personal use is often tolerated within limits and if it does not compromise security, confidentiality, reputation and so forth. Some of my colleagues in Gartner are looking at the e-discovery angle (what if information exchanged in a social network were subpoenaed? what about retention policies?), but once again is it really so different from email? Sometimes I have the feeling that we should take a historian’s approach to IT. As the Italian historian and philosopher Giambattista Vico, used to say, history repeats itself: it is time to learn from our (recent) past.