Do I know you?

Are behind-the-firewall social networks doomed?

Posted by Gia Lyons on April 30, 2008

Just read how adoption of corporate social networks remain sluggish.

Let’s say you implement an online social networking system in your organization, and adoption happens. Over time, does it become a giant echo chamber of groupthink? Does everyone eventually become connected to the point that no original thought occurs? I believe so. On the other hand, the potential massive increase in productivity that comes from knowing what others know (call it “network awareness”) is nothing to sneeze at.

Bubble_insideBut, to remain healthy, a person’s network must continually expand (and maybe even atrophy – new cells form, old cells die). My friend, Kathryn Everest, explains it this way: I meet someone new, we have a burst of energetic collaboration and breakthrough thinking, but our relationship normalizes over time, and our differing points of view begin to become similar. To get that new thinking fix again, that jazz factor, I need to make a connection with someone new. Social network science calls this extending your reach, and it’s critical to innovative thinking.

This makes me think of The Truman Show. If your network can only expand to the edge of your corporate bubble, then what’s the life expectancy of a corporation’s ability to innovate?

Right. That’s why there are books like Wikinomics.

Oh. And Twitter.

Those who start from the outside first probably benefit more than those who try to start from the inside first. Also, it’s WAY easier to justify the cost of setting up an external online social environment with your business partners and customers than it is with just employees alone. Of course, you must have an “inside out” culture to support it.


12 Responses to “Are behind-the-firewall social networks doomed?”

  1. Steve Bell said

    That PC world article seems pretty spot on – especially from the standpoint of where I am sitting within the company that I work for.

    As far as morphing to group think – I guess that would depend on the corporate culture and the people. Those that really practice constructive confrontation – I would think not.

    I am worried that the main objectives of why social networking within the firewall will get lost. People have to be openly willing to share. People still what some personalization with whatever is implemented. The company has to be willing to risk opening up – even inside.

    As the company that I work for – marches in that direction it is going to be interesting to see what changes are going to happen, the adoption rate and what improvements come from social networking.

  2. wonderwebby said

    Hi Gia,
    you might be interested to read Michele Martin’s recent postings on Homophily “the tendency for people to associate and bond with others who share their interests, values, culture, demographics, class etc”

  3. Aditya said

    Interesting thought. However, there is an inflow and outflow for any corporation. So the social networking need not necessarily stagnate. Of course, a corporate social network need not be restricted to just the employees, and instead be extended to other stakeholders too. This should mitigate the echo chamber effect to an extent.
    In the end, social networks should be complementary to activities outside the bubble or we’ll end up like the point illustrated in this strip

  4. Gia Lyons said

    Steve, yes, where you work will perhaps require a new purpose statement, along with new “seed” content and people. I tell my customers to be careful who they invite to participate as contributors in new social software systems, since they tend to set the tone and personality for those who follow. And guidelines about what a company is trying to accomplish with social software can sometimes help to set the intended tone – internal marketing efforts are critical for tone-setting and “mission-setting” as well.

    Aditya, exactly. Online social networks should only live in a company’s DMZ, perhaps…

  5. Gia Lyons said

    Jasmin, thanks for the link!

  6. I understand The Truman Show analogy, it’s quite interesting. Haven’t thought of social networks in those terms until now.

    However, I think external social networks are paving the way to internal ones, and companies will eventually realize that, and implement it. The most important catalyst for such adoption would be security – already we’re seeing a lot of corporate information flowing freely in Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Xing and others. In Israel a soldier (at an intelligence unit) was sentenced to 21 days detention for uploading pictures of his military base to facebook.
    I’m sure security officers at businesses are searching the social web like crazy for internal (and maybe even confidential) information.

    As more employees are using external social networks, this concern will become more and more real. And that would induce the introduction of internal social networks.

  7. Gia Lyons said

    I’m getting some excellent Twitter responses to this post. How can I entice them to post here, though? Many have great points of view that hadn’t occurred to me. Should I post them here anonomously?

  8. John Smart said

    Would a Usenet style system work, where there is one decentralized system for it all? It seems that a major problem/tension is that companies don’t want their IP stored on some host site they don’t own, but they also don’t perceive themselves large enough to jusitify a secure site managed by their own IT. What if it was like setting up an internal usenet server where posts tagged with PUBLIC were shared (minus that tag), where people were adding their node to the collective while knowing their own community-secure tags, dogears, activities were safe?

  9. Gia Lyons said

    John, interesting! We do our stuff behind the firewall, but have the option to share “in the cloud” when necessary. At that point, it’s moved/synced with a SaaS implementation, perhaps.

    Boy. I can just hear the jaws clenching in the legal and HR departments about the ease with which a person might accidentally share a confidential item. Hmmm.

  10. John Smart said

    Heh. Reminds me of Corporate Flogging including the “compulsory Policy Document and associated 3 day training program”. :-)

    Satire is the highest form of comedy.

    Seriously, though, I think the concern is valid and it’s possible that it would inevitably happen once, maybe twice. Consider it a cost. After that it wouldn’t happen any more, just like the common axiom for men saying the best way to remember your anniversary is to forget it once.

  11. […] Are behind the firewall social networks doomed? by Gia Lyons. […]

  12. Venkat said

    Interesting question you raise here. As it happens we are mulling exactly this strategic question at Xerox at the moment… Inside led? Outside-led? Hybrid? Build-or-buy? SaaS-a-la-ning or build around an proprietary/open source basic system?

    But 2 points you didn’t raise, and I wonder why (because I am sure they aren’t new to you):

    1. The ‘giant echo chamber’ is true for smaller orgs with low turnover, but in any org of sufficient size/complexity, there is enough turnover, role flux etc. that the internal social network adds value simply as a huge, dynamically updated org. chart, to let people maintain a real-time situation awareness. Right now, I periodically get some org. chart updates as emailed PPTs, and go dig out (usually obsolete) charts when I need them. It usually takes a phone call to clarify work history and context in interacting with a distant corporate peer for the first time.

    2. Maybe the echo chamber doesn’t matter, because ideation and innovation isn’t what you are looking for at all for this particular medium — maybe that function is happening elsewhere, in the innovation portals etc., with sufficient injection of outsiders (customers etc.) to keep things fresh. The true value I think, may be in the ‘deep work history’ aspect. Example: one major customer of ours, a defense firm with multiple business units, uses a homegrown social network of sorts (actually, one of those expertise locater thingies of the KM era) very effectively to keep track of people who worked on large military contracts through their lifecycle. Such huge projects are like very fluid internal sub-corporations that are born and die with 5-30 year life cycles. A huge number of people flow through such efforts, and keeping track of who did what and when on a megaproject is of huge value to this customer, and something even a very good org chart system just doesn’t capture. When internal social networking capabilities finally mature, this will be a function they’ll need to take on that will need a fairly significant redesign of the ‘public’ models like LinkedIn, which profile expertise and work histories at much shallower levels (i.e. ‘Mechanical Engineer, worked at Acme Inc. 1993-98’ as opposed to ‘Knows the K3233 Pro Widget Circuit Board, and was on the HugeDeal project during Phase II’)

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