A discussion of why and how to implement social technologies in the workplace.

In the tech world, it’s hard to find a development or trend more polarizing than the growth of social technologies. Discussions around social media in the public sphere tend to position things in a truly binary way: you either “get it” or you don’t; you’re either using social media or you aren't.

This black and white approach to the issue has spread to the social enterprise too. Companies either use social technologies or they don’t. People argue about wikis vs. intranets as though they’re mutually exclusive. The grey area seems to have disappeared. The conversation is all about a new way of doing work; a revolution in the enterprise. Out with the old, in with the new.

You say you want a revolution?

The tendency towards these arguments is understandable. Social evangelists, especially in a conservative, risk-averse enterprise, feel they are fighting an uphill battle against a well-entrenched foe. The idea that one must scream to make their voice heard is as common as it is logical - to a point.

But are those who resist the socialization of the enterprise really ignorant of the benefits of a collaborative work environment? The technologies are relatively new, sure, but there is ample evidence - anecdotal and empirical - that introducing social features such as wikis, forums and online networking can benefit an organization. It’s an easy sell, rationally speaking. But the enterprise isn't always rational. 

When you position something as a revolution, you isolate the former ruling class. When you talk about the new way of working, you immediately position the old way as wrong. The battle-orientated nature of the discussion only compounds this. It’s a false dichotomy.

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

In war, there are winners and losers. Is that really what you want for your enterprise? Because in the enterprise, unlike in war, the ‘losers’ stick around and nine times out of ten, they’re still in charge.

Positioning the fight to socialize you enterprise as, well… a fight, isn't the way to gain ground. Instead, social evangelists have to light the path. Show that the “new way” isn't entirely new and that the “old way” still has its place. 

How do you do that?

Start your social efforts on familiar ground. Find an acceptable offline behaviour and show how social tools can move that behaviour online. Does your CEO like to give rousing speeches at the biweekly staff meetings? Show how he can reach even more employees by using a blog or by capturing the speeches on video. Is there a strong corporate culture around informal information sharing? Show how a wiki can capture that information in a searchable way.

Show the journey, not just the destination. Position change as a series of small steps, not a giant revolution. Smaller changes are easier to digest and each milestone you hit provides an opportunity to take stock and make sure you aren’t leaving people behind. Understand the limits of the tools. Wikis, blogs and social networks have their place. So do static intranet content and offline collaboration. It’s easy to buy into the hype around social tools but advocates are positioning themselves for long-term pain if they pretend they are silver bullets. Any gains that are made will quickly be lost if the wrong tool is positioned as the perfect replacement for an old one.

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