By one of those interesting coincidences in life, just one day after I posted my rather controversial view about how bad an idea it is to create a government version of Facebook, I read that the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center has just launched its own homegrown social network, named Spacebook.
I cannot access that (indeed it is meant to be used only by authorized users), so I cannot make any sensible comment on how good (or not) it is. I do understand the rationale, of course, and some of those who responded to my post yesterday probably feel perfectly comfortable with something like Spacebook, as well as with Taxbook, Healthbook, Schoolbook, and other possible versions that apply the basic social networking principles within organizational boundaries.
The CIO at Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center, reveals some of the background on her blog, saying:
This is similar to Facebook, except that it is restricted to NASA’s secure internal network. It’s open to every employee of NASA.
I need to tell you that this whole Web 2.0 thing gives people the willies. We delayed the launch one week to make sure we addressed the very valid concerns raised by our stakeholders. Our legal folks wanted to make sure that we met our policy and regulatory obligations; our IT security folks wanted to make sure that we didn’t expose NASA data or NASA networks to any additional risks; and finally our Office of Human Capital people wanted to make sure that we were all well-behaved and personally accountable.
From her blog, it looks like building a Spacebook was the only way to overcome organizational resistance to the adoption of social networking. I reached out to her and she confirmed that “Spacebook was a reasonable entry point into the social networking space, given the business driver of the need for collaboration internally among the scientists and engineers at Goddard and the barriers posed by cautious reaction to social networking among the population”. They also took into account the peculiarities iof the user environment and the organizational culture
The challenge now will be to make sure that NASA employees see the value of using Spacebook as opposed to other tools that they already use on a personal basis, within or outside the work environment. In fact, users of Facebook or other external networks may have little incentive to use a different platform and lose their existing contacts. Those who do not use social networking tools yet need to see something particularly compelling that will drive them to Spacebook. In both cases the key to success (or failure) is with individuals who animate discussions and create content, and not with the organization.
The main limitation of an environment like Spacebook is that it creates artificial boundaries around the individual: users can network only with colleagues, but experiences in social media in all industry sectors show that the value is most likely created at the intersection between corporate, professional and personal networks. The reassuring element in this case, though, is that the Nasa Goddard CIO seems very well aware of all this. She told me: “The bottom line is that collaboration and connections are so important in my opinion to an enterprise, anything that reduces the barriers to entry is good.”. NASA already has a presence on external networks: the real question is whether, when and how those two worlds will become one. I’m pretty sure she will be actively looking forward to that.