Social Technologies Challenge Companies Set in Their Ways


As someone who just went through a sweeping redesign of a corporate Web site, I know firsthand that technology can be frustrating. We found lots of bugs during testing. But you know what? Most of them could be fixed, and workarounds could be created for many of those that couldn't.


Ever try creating a workaround for an obstinate coworker? Or spouse? Or child? Good luck with that. Unlike technology, which can generally be customized if you've got the budget, it's nearly impossible to bend people to your will. That's why cultural issues, rather than technological ones, tend to present the biggest hurdles when implementing enterprise applications.


That's what Mark Koenig, a vice president of Saugatuck Technology, told me when I interviewed him about enteprise social computing technologies a few weeks ago. The technological challenges to adoption (network integration, information relevance, integration with enterprise applications and data portability) will likely be easier to handle than the "people" challenges (culture shift, business model and measuring ROI).


Burton Group reached a similar conclusion after surveying companies tackling social networking projects. From a Burton Group report:

[O]rganizations are struggling with non-technology issues such as business case, metrics, policies and controls, roles and responsibilities, employee participation models, and cultural dynamics.

According to a PCWorld story about the report, many companies have the erroneous impression that their social computing strategies lag those of their competitors. Burton Group predicts that adoption will be relatively slow, as companies wait to see the benefits gained by early adopters.


Much of the responsibility lies with vendors selling such solutions rather than with users, opines Koenig. He said:

In the end, I think it's on the vendor to find a way to make their solutions something customers want and will use. The customers won't do it for them. They've got a business to run, or a town to govern or whatever the case might be. The technical challenges, the vendors have absolutely got to find ways to solve. The more cultural and organizational issues have to be addressed as well, and the vendors need to take a leadership role there as well. At least at this early stage, where companies might create these playgrounds and understand it might be the third use of a solution that will be the one that makes money, the vendors need to identify those use cases that do create value. They need to create road maps for the rest of those customers, or those customers won't see the point of jumping on. They've got to get through that inflection point.

One of the key benefits of social computing technologies is their ability to drive bottom-up innovation. Yet many companies struggle with this, as they are organized in a top-down hierarchy. They may pay lip service to transparency, but not be comfortable with it. Other important reasons for adopting them, according to Burton Group:


  • Younger and tech-savvy workers expect them.
  • They can boost collaboration and help create a sense of community.
  • They help leverage employee knowledge, which might otherwise remain exclusive to a particular geography or division of a company.


Difficulty in demonstrating ROI is a big sticking point, agree the Burton Group and Koenig. Indeed, CIOs appear to favor social computing technologies with a clear business case, such as Web conferencing, according to a Robert Half Technology survey released in July.


Koenig suggests companies will have to get more comfortable with the idea of experimentation to determine the best uses of social computing technologies. Yet experimentation is something that hasn't traditionally been encouraged by many companies. He said:

Managers will have to get comfortable with the idea that these solutions, at least at this stage of the game, are going to take kind of a playground approach. You have to get in there and let people play around with them and see what they come up with.