Social Software in the Enterprise


20 April 2004

“We like to think that we hire mostly above-average people with above-average skills and motivation. We know that our future as a company depends on our ability to continuously innovate and stay one step ahead of the competition. How can we best encourage creativity and risk-taking within our organization and how can we be much more effective at initiating and executing change initiatives?”

The organizations that I have been working with see social software in the enterprise as an opportunity to effectively address two long-standing business issues of knowledge management and collaboration and thereby increase innovation within the enterprise. They recognize that the business climate has fundamentally changed and that a much more agile and adaptive organization is required and they recognize that new social software tools are able to not only support this, but to act as a catalyst for deep cultural changes within the enterprise.

Knowledge Management

Traditional knowledge management has focused on top-down, detailed, and often tightly controlled repositories and systems. Case based reasoning systems popular in the early and mid nineties provide good examples of this approach. Relying on a repository of carefully controlled and annotated cases, the system matches new problems to existing cases to guide the operator to a resolution usually through a formal question-and-answers process. The approach has been very successful in areas like technical support, though many organizations have become disillusioned with the technique due to its very high management overhead.

However the technique does not lend itself to more generalized knowledge management and collaboration. Other approaches, such as those evolved from document management systems, suffer from the same fundamental issues: (i) high management overhead caused by the necessity to maintain complex meta-data and and (ii) inflexibility in making changes due to the necessity of maintaining central oversight and control, both over the data and over the met-data (e.g. corporate-wide taxonomies).

This all leads to very high barriers to adoption, and it does not support a modern adaptive enterprise.


Collaboration is increasingly a problem in large enterprises. Not because people have changed and are less willing to work together, but because the nature of the challenges facing the enterprise have changed and the old ways of responding are no longer sufficient.

There are many ways in which companies encourage collaboration. An important one is through the organizational structure. By creating departments and teams of similar skills and areas of responsibility, and by locating these teams close both geographically and organizationally, collaboration within the units is greatly facilitated.

However, many of the challenges faced by enterprises in the modern volatile economy are much more disruptive in nature than has been the case in the past. You may have seen competition from the shop down the road before, but Wal-Mart, the world’s highest revenue company bar none and accounting for nearly 10% of all US retail spending, is competition on a previously unknown scale. You may have been competing with other companies in your industry on who could get the best pay deal from the workers, but when your competitors suddenly move all their work to India, then you have a different kind of problem that require a different kind of response. Disruptive innovation, where new entrants find new markets and eventually price you out of the whole market, has always been with us: witness the mini-mill revolution in the steel industry or the disk drive industry so carefully studied by Clayton Christensen. But the pace of change has perceptively changed and only the most fleet-footed, adaptive enterprises are able to respond.

Meeting these disruptive challenges require collaboration across traditional business units, departments, and teams, and often across geographies. The organizational structures that were supposed to help collaboration and innovation now actively hinder it, and there is no obvious organizational fix.

New Technology Enablers

Technology has evolved that innovative organizations are beginning to adapt to help them solve the two problems of knowledge management and collaboration. Broadly, they fall into three categories.

Free text search and auto classifiers allow you to make sense of unstructured data. “Don’t classify, search” seems to be the motto of Google, the search engine company, who with their search appliances are one of the technology players in the search space, while Autonomy and many others play in the classification area.

Wikis, weblogs (blogs) and combination software, as advocated especially by Socialtext, are all ways of allowing people to produce and edit content with almost no barriers to adoption. Wikis are inherently collaborative, and with RSS as a technology for syndication, allows individuals to subscribe to new content anywhere, sharing is in practice inevitable. I have seen communities of interest spring up, apparently from nowhere, and have observed the value it brings to organizations in terms of loyalty and team spirit but also real, practical changes in the small, day-to-day matters and in the large.

Social networks are everywhere, but it is often difficult to connect with the right people. Scientists will tell you that the search problem is difficult: you may be connected to the person you need to meet by only a few steps (the famous “six degrees of separation”), but it is very hard to find that path from within the network.

Business network tools attempt to solve this problem. Outside the enterprise, the best known examples are probably LinkedIn, Ecademy, and Spoke Software.

Within the enterprise, however, there are opportunities to go much further in automatically gathering network information than even Spoke has envisaged. Typically, there is a single system (Microsoft Exchange or Lotus) for e-mails and calendar, with perhaps another for contact or sales opportunity management (ACT, Goldmine, Siebel or the like), allowing a systems to deduce rich information about your contacts. With more static information like organizational structures and interests and knowledge from the wikis, weblogs, and your RSS subscriptions, there are plenty of opportunities for automatically gathering a rich data set, allowing the individual to focus on corrections and approving changes.

This avoids a problem with sites like LinkedIn where the sheer effort of maintaining the system’s representation of your networks can be prohibitive. In this way we can build within the enterprise solutions that meet my eight requirements for social network solutions.

Organizational Challenges

Technology is only ever an enabler and it is folly to think that it alone will solve all problems around knowledge management and collaboration, that after installing a few pieces of software innovation will suddenly abound within the enterprise.

There are many challenges. Too many to cover here in detail and in any case the details always vary between organizations. Some important points to consider, however.

  • Do you really want your employees to be innovative and creative? If your key strength is on price and productivity, then perhaps encouraging everybody to share knowledge and interests is not the right thing for you. Rather, you should perhaps first consider how you can move the labor that is price sensitive offshore. Then you can look at the parts of your organization that are creative and innovative and address their needs. On the other hand, if you pride yourself on innovation then your priorities may be different.

  • How will you encourage collaboration despite your organizational structure? The tools and technologies will allow you to edit, comment or maybe even delete everybody’s content – that is the point of collaboration. But “everybody” may be your boss: how does that work with your bonus scheme when you have actively disagreed with him? Collaboration can be very disruptive to traditional hierarchies and this challenge must be tackled: it is no good pretending it does not exist (as I have seen all too often).

  • As knowledge becomes more explicit and captured electronically it also becomes easier to copy and distribute, by accident or design, to people you might not have expected. We are not just talking competitors but also the public, journalists, and investors. Again, it is no use to pretend that the issue does not exist, though I often find that companies are unnecessarily worried about things that, frankly, does not matter much. Clear policies must be in place and everybody must understand them.

  • How does collaboration tie in to your reward structures? There is a great opportunity to measure collaboration and sharing by analyzing activity in these social software tools, but how will you use it? How should collaboration be rewarded within your business?

Training, communication, and a phased approach with a very active change program is almost always required and will address these and other issues. Sponsorship from the top, i.e. the CEO and the board, is a key success factor: the questions raised here are fundamental questions about your company and its culture and the opportunity is to define and change this culture – classic CEO responsibilities.

Final Thoughts

I do not think many companies have seriously begun to tackle how to identify, manage and promote its social structures and how to use those structures to drive innovation and growth. However, there are some.

The company whose executive was quoted at the beginning of this article is actively addressing the issues. They have established a group reporting to and sponsored by the CEO who is evaluating and building social software solutions for the enterprise. While functioning as a center of excellence and experts in the area, they have the remit to act as a catalyst and change agent throughout the organization. They support departments and groups not only in adopting software, but also in the cultural and organizational changes that are required. What they are doing will raise the bar on how anybody does business.