(R)Evolution Past Present Future of Social Enterprise“You say you want a revolution?”

On the White Album, John Lennon and The Beatles famously asked that question, and over the last two years or so the champions of enterprise social networking have been quick to proclaim an answer in the affirmative. It’s been too easy to claim that introducing newsfeeds, microblogging, @targets and #tags to the enterprise represents some sort of revolution in the way organizations communicate. It doesn't. If anything, it’s an evolution, not a revolution -- but the pieces are in place to get there in the near future.

An Evolution, Not a Revolution

For all the sound and fury about enterprise social networks breaking down barriers and providing a better communication forum, in many ways they’re just a new channel for something people have been doing since time immemorial -- talking with one another. In business, the channels have grown as society’s grown.

Face-to-face conversation and written letters were replaced with paper memos and pneumatic tubes to carry them between floors of turn-of-the-century office towers. These in turn were replaced by telephone calls, which led to dictation, answering machines and voicemails. Some twenty years ago, the growth of the internet allowed email to begin exploding into mass adoption beyond the closed networks of corporate systems. All of these advancements were simply that -- new technology, admittedly groundbreaking, but the use case was always the same. Person A needed to talk to Person B. And usually, Person A already knew Person B.

Opening Up the Conversation

The promise of enterprise social networks is that they will leverage the power of the network to engage other users in that conversation. In theory, when Person A and Person B are having that dialogue on a social network, now Persons C, D, E, F ad nauseam can swoop in and participate. They’ll know it’s happening because @targets and #tags serve it up as something they’re interested in, and it adds value because the knowledge in people’s heads is (presumed to be) a corporate asset; now that knowledge is out of their heads, interacting with others’ knowledge, and producing all sorts of new connections and leaps of logic that lead to innovation. It’s Wikinomics on speed.

When it works, anyway.

But it doesn't always work, and it certainly doesn't always work naturally. As much as some in the industry want us to believe that social adoption is “viral”, it’s rarely that easy and besides, “viral” rarely sounds like a good thing to people outside of marketing. It doesn't matter how groundbreaking your technology is if you don’t have people on the network buying in, checking the newsfeed (or their alerts from the newsfeed) and participating because they inherently want to. Getting enterprise social networks to work means creating that “want-to.”

Creating the Want-To

When users are engaged with a conversation, it’s because they care about it. Maybe it’s the people they’re talking with, maybe it’s the topic they’re discussing, or maybe it’s both. The point is, people engage with documents, data and especially other people on social networks because it’s something that intrinsically matters to them. That means people and issues close to home. People and issues they can engage with. That’s not something you can create, it’s something you have to tap into.

This was true with letters and written memos. It was true with the phone. It was (and remains) true with email. It hasn't stopped being true with enterprise social networks. In enterprises, adoption of social tools most typically comes in fits and starts. Different departments engage different applications. Even when there’s a common platform -- which makes the most strategic sense -- getting an enterprise to adopt that platform across the board is hard. You need to have people who interact locally before they can add value by interacting globally.

Then you can start talking about truly enterprise social. And only when you've achieved a truly social enterprise can you start talking about revolutionary new applications of this technology, because a revolution is about doing something entirely new, not finding a new way to do something old.

The Brave New World

Like any good revolution, the enterprise social revolution needs to start with a challenge, a tyrant to overthrow. In this case, it’s the proliferation of social tools within the enterprise, because in the next few years people will engage and will adopt them. I've heard it said that for a new tool to be adopted, it just needs to be easier to use than the old tool, and once you have an audience of engaged users, social networks are certainly easier than email.

The thing is, those tools won’t always talk to one another, and users will find themselves with just as much information to manage from various newsfeeds as they ever had with email. Just look at the options: Yammer, Chatter, Jive, Connections, et cetera, et cetera … and those are just the obvious ones.
The concept of a destination, an enterprise Facebook, has less apparent value than it did even a year ago.

The sheer amount of noise in an enterprise has the potential to eventually overwhelm key messages. Just like a stack of paper. Just like voicemails. Just like email. Where enterprise social needs to truly deliver and yes, believe it or not, revolutionize (for once) how we communicate is through aggregation.

Bring the messages together, filter them and be smart enough to ferret out the important stuff for immediate consumption. Use powerful search-driven applications and personalization algorithms to make it a sound bite, a capsule, an executive summary -- a Twitter-length 140 characters -- that decision makers can absorb in the blink of an eye and act on through integrated messaging from the same window. Nobody ever found an efficient and user-friendly way to do that with paper, voicemails or email -- short of having an assistant sort through them all, and the “assistant-for-every-knowledge-worker” model clearly wouldn't scale.

Do something that’s never been done before? Now that’s revolutionary. That’s more like what we want to see from this new technology, not slicker ways to do the same old things.

You say you want a revolution? Let’s see enterprise social get there by 2015, and we can talk. It’s definitely coming. If you know where to look, it’s already here.

Title image courtesy of Denim Dave from Flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

Editor's Note: Read more from this month's focus on the future of the social enterprise here