A very popular questions from our government clients is: “which enterprise platform should we use for collaboration?”. From the very beginning, the conversation gears toward tools and technologies, and possibly technologies that government can select and control.
There are several reasons for this:
- Social networking is dealt with as a strategy, or a program. Strategic objectives are set, and they are rarely quantifiable (“to increase transparency”, “to engage citizens”, “to improve knowledge management”). Such objectives lead to a business case to invest money in tools and people to achieve them.
- Enterprise IT vendors are very vocal, from whichever angle they come from (software, hardware, telecommunications, IT services) about the importance of making the right technology choice, and everything they sell becomes social (from networking to CRM, from document management to analytics).
- The government culture is one where employees comply with processes and are rarely encouraged or incented to focus on outcomes. This is pretty understandable, given the levels of regulations and accountability.
Unfortunately for both government executives and vendors, being “social” is something very different and it goes to the heart of how an enterprise operates.
Being “social” means to provide employees with a combination of tools that let them decide how to best access and leverage information, connections, conversation that may take place both inside and outside the enterprise, and across the enterprise boundaries.
Being “social” means that value is accrued by an often unpredictable combination of top-down enablement and bottom-up initiative, and traditional methods to develop strategies and business cases are likely to fail.
Being “social” means that an enterprise platform won’t be able to meet all employee’s needs, even if vendors are trying their best to both mimic consumer web 2.0 features (e.g. microblogs à la Twitter or Facebook-like profiles and “friending” mechanisms), and provide bridges to consumer platforms to position their products at the very center of what employees need.
Unfortunately for both government executives and vendors, the tools that employees will need to use and the knowledge they will need to access will morph in multiple ways. They will have to use platforms that change over time. determined my multiple “crowds” who decide where, when and how to collate and rate information. to start and stop conversation, to arrange and rearrange mutual connections.
Three categories of tools will compete for employees’ attention and corporate relevance:
- Enterprise social platforms, either commercial or custom-developed (usually by implementing or integrating open source components), mostly aimed at internal collaboration or to engagement with trusted parties (such as suppliers, agents, intermediaries).
- Toolsets made available to individual employees to create engagement initiatives, via blogs, fora, wikis, idea crowdsourcing and the likes – a good example is Apps.gov NOW, which I covered in a recent post
- Consumer tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, which employees are often familiar with for personal reasons, and they start extending to professional use.
As far as (1), it does not matter how good the platform is, it won’t allow employees to build mixed communities with internal and external people (unless the latter are sanctioned by the enterprise). Employees will feel constrained as they realize that most of the value of “social” come from being in control of the very boundaries of collaboration. As a consequence, uptake and use will remain below expectations, and questions will be raised about the ROI of those platforms.
As far as (2), they will allow employees to choose how to create external collaboration avenues but will external stakeholders find those avenues compelling? Why should I join a discussion on – say – electronic health records on a government employee-initiated blog, when there are existing blogs and Facebook groups debating that already?
This leaves (3) as the most palatable option. Employees and citizens will all use the same tools, every day, for multiple purposes. The basic precondition for being truly “social” is to be where your friends already are.
Of course there are security, privacy, record retention, moderation, neutrality issues, and many more. Those same issues that enterprise social platforms solve by closing the gates of collaboration at the firewall, by predetermining what “inside” and “outside” mean, by drawing clear and insurmountable boundaries.
But unfortunately for government executives and vendors, this will remain a game of blurring boundaries, of changing platforms, of successive waves of hype and fashion, of mass migration from one platform to another, from one collaboration style to another.
If you don’t believe this, just look at how fast kids and youngsters moved from SMS to IM to Facebook, how quick MySpace shifted from a leader to a distant follower, how sudden the appearance and growth of Twitter has been, how fast Second Life rose and faded on the horizon.
Being “social” is about more empowerment with less control, about more choice with less constraints. How can enterprise software vendors win this game?