Blog post

Why Enterprise Social Software May Be Doomed in Government

By Andrea Di Maio | October 28, 2010 | 8 Comments

web 2.0 in governmentsocial networks in government

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:

  1. 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).
  2. Toolsets made available to individual employees to create engagement initiatives, via blogs, fora, wikis, idea crowdsourcing and the likes – a good example is NOW, which I covered in a recent post
  3. 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?

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  • Gareth SAMBROOK says:

    This post directly ties into thoughts around a governement-issue URL shortner launched in Victoria (Australia) this week. Has no stats features & other nifty stuff a la or the Google offering- so why bother!? Cant see me using this .gov offer until @ least a comparable stats feature is available- will stick to for now:

  • Keith Moore says:

    Great discussion.

    How can enterprise software vendors win this game?

    The answer is in focusing on the public’s problems and addressing them one by one. Government can not do it alone. Solutions at this level of impact require a private public partnership and an inclusion of small businesses with a focus in mind of giving small businesses an incentive to participate in the job creation opportunities generated by Social software for government.

  • Martin Stewart-Weeks says:

    A superb post, Andrea. A crisp and brutal assessment of some of the apparently intractable contradictions between the instincts and ethic of ‘open’ in the social media and social networking world and the instincts and ethic of ‘closed’ in much of traditional government.

  • Mike Lachapelle says:

    Andrea, I enjoy your posts very much. This post is symptomatic of a underlying problem with most discussion around social networking, in particular when it comes to government environment. The discussions centre around what tool set will most likely spur or support social interaction best. But, what is missing in these conversations is any consideration of motivation.

    Why do you want people to have aceess to and use ‘your’ social network, – what is your objective? Why would they want to use it, – what is their objective? What is the underlying dynamic that would keep them coming back to this particular network? These are all fundamental questions that people rarely seem to ask themselves.

    You hit upon a very key factor in this dynamic when to identify behaviours around constraining the discussions. The bosses want to esatblish a social network in the business, but participants are are not allowed to do A, B or C and can’t discuss X or Y. ‘Y’, that is the main question, why would they want to use this? Answer that question by talking to your youngest people, not reading a magazine or pontificating that you, in your 40s or 50s understand the ‘networked generation’, because fundamentally, most behaviours indicate you don’t.

    But that,s just my opinion, I may be wrong!

  • paulestorey says:

    The notion of controlling acces to SM in any enterprise is a myth,
    One fed govt dept won’t turn on the building wifi for fear staff may use it! So when activated it will be solely for intranet access from “approved” devices austensibly to stop ppl accessing pornography. Pffftt! My (Govt) phone is 3G and we use personal laptops because they are faster and have better software; noting that it takes up to six months to approve or not even the most mainstream new software. We do what always happens and invent work arounds to achieve a better outcome.
    The Vic Gov url shortener Gareth mentions is a perfect example of a WTF app. Gov needs to feed the app developers not compete with them. The Fed Health dept has a public toilet locator which does not allow UGC, another WTF app oops sorry website (pseudo app).
    We overstate the security, privacy, record retention, moderation, neutrality etc issues because we are seeking to apply pen and paper rules to speed of light technology. Education, clear guidance to what is personal and what is “company” and stated consequences will overcome 99% of the issues and as for the other 1% think what was done to the Pentagon with one insecure fax line.

  • Phil Lincoln says:

    Using third party social media does not equal good community engagement. Nor does using enterprise social software.

    It’s easy to focus on a technology as the best fit for a particular consultation activity, but what is more important is people and process. That means having skilled practitioners who understand their audience and engage in a compelling, considerate and trustworthy way.

    Moral and legal obligations such as accessibility, security, privacy and record keeping on third party tools can be overcome, but if it is a choice between an accountable and fancy, government must choose the former. That’s why enterprise software is often the first choice. What we need is to put the tools the right hands.

    To put it another way, a flash car doesn’t make a bad driver any better. It can actually make matters worse.

  • Great post. It will be interesting to watch the ebb and flow of social software in government as it moves between openness/conversations and control/broadcasts. The success of the internet and its move to a social platform has been through unanticipated uses for the technology. Will government (and many companies) allow the freedom for this type of growth within the organisation or out with the broader community.

  • Interesting set of comments, and I am glad to see that many are looking into this topic. My post also spurred a very interesting debate inside Gartner.