There has been a push for enterprises to embrace a more social way of working internally, through communications, collaboration, transparency, enabled through social technologies. But these new methods of work can be met with some trepidation throughout the organization, which lead to challenges in implementation.

At the last DreamForce Conference in August 2011, Marc Benioff, the CEO of (SFDC) talked about his vision of the social enterprise: ““Our Social Enterprise vision fundamentally changes how companies collaborate, share and manage information.”

Figure 1 – The SFDC view of the social enterprise

But what does this really mean? What it means is that the social enterprise is supposed to have better communication, collaboration, interactions with its customers and partners, etc. But although many enterprises have brought in social networks and other social technologies, many IT people are still afraid (for security reasons), and management does not understand the value. Below I talk in more depth about some of the other challenges social enterprises have.

Social is Not Always Goal Oriented

As a business leader you are probably just starting to contend with social networks in your business and often find them to be of questionable value. The “social enterprise” is being touted as the next big thing: the new way to do business and a “social” way to do business.

Social is only a new method of connecting and discovering information; it does not enable and guide action. Business is about delivering results and for that you need a committed network that has a clear action plan and goal. See Figure 2 for differentiation between “conversation” which is social but may have no goal or outcome, as compared to “collaboration” which has commitment and a clear goal.

We still struggle with silos of collaboration in most enterprises today and by adding social tools, we have accelerated communication but not necessarily increased the overall level of collaboration and action in the enterprise. One of the reasons for this is that both social networks and online communities are focused on connection and communication, but there is no expected result or outcome.

Figure 2 – The different levels of Collaboration

Social is Not Always Innovative

Any organization grows from adding at its edges. Social networks may add, but do they add value? Will “social” be the model of interactions between businesses or organizations in the future, or is “social” just helping to create more connected silos?

Hyper-connectivity, instant access to information and user-generated content are driving another paradigm shift in the way we do business. But some of the challenge here is what is called “structural rigidity” or the inability to move away from older proven ideas and processes to new ones required to adapt to the changing situation and business environment.

You see this in some IT organizations today (but many less than a year ago), the desire to stick with monolithic ERP structures and casting any other application in the same light. Yes, it provides job security for the IT folks, but is it best for the business user? These days IT does not hold all the keys to the network.

For example, let’s say I was in the sales department and had just been asked to create a large proposal by a prospect. In the past I would have asked IT to develop an application to do this, but it would take them months to gather requirements, and even more months to code and test the application.

Unfortunately, I only have a few weeks to get the proposal in, so the IT approach will not work. Instead I go online and find a cloud-based tool like Podio (now owned by Citrix), and by putting different widgets and functions together or customizing an already available application that is close to what I want, I can have my solution in hours rather than months (or years). I invite a few sales colleagues to help work on the proposal, get some content experts from both inside and outside the company, and pretty soon I have a winning proposal delivered on time.

Social Does Not Always Get Your Attention

Intuitively you know engagement is the key differentiator in a social network. Attracting and keeping someone’s attention today is a fleeting effort for your business unless you get them engaged. Figures 3 and 4 show how quickly attention decreases on a Twitter topic.
Figure 3: Rate of clicks per minute on “East Coast earthquake: 5.8 magnitude epicenter hits Virginia” first shared by the Washington Post on Twitter.

Attention in this case is measured by the half life which is the amount of time at which this link will receive half of the clicks it will ever receive. The second question is, does a topic’s half life depend on where it is posted? Figure 4 shows that the mean half life of a link on twitter is 2.8 hours, on Facebook it’s 3.2 hours and via "direct" sources (like email or IM clients) it’s 3.4 hours. However, video (YouTube) has almost doubled the half life (twice the attention) of the other social networks (Figure 4).

Figure 4: How Long Will People Pay Attention? Link half-Life is 5 Minutes

So attention in a “social business” world depends on what you post (content), where you post it and the type of media you use. This “attention” can be applied to business through models of “alive” or “dead” customers.

Engagement is the level of participation of an individual in a group, network, community or crowd. Engagement is not always a good thing, and where they are noisy, dominant or unhelpful, this is called “the Noisy Idiot” problem.


Attention (putting your focus, awareness and time on something) and Engagement (attending with the right resources to get work done) will be critical factors in future work. Today there is so much “social noise” that collaborative filtering is required to determine what is of value and what is noise?

I often hear some news breaking on Twitter before I hear it on radio, TV or other traditional media. Twitter also has the advantage of “collaborative filtering” through those I “follow” ( i.e. their interests are my interests) which provides me with a “serendipity” experience (reading something very relevant to me, but I did not know to look for it, or even that it is important).

To understand how much attention social is getting we can look at some figures from IBM. They claim that the world currently spends 110 billion minutes on social networks and blog sites per month, which equates to 22 percent of all the time people spend online.

The Criticality of Engagement

Most of the value of networks (of people) is derived from Metcalfe’s or Reed's Laws. Metcalfe's law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system (n2) (definition from Wikipedia).

Metcalfe’s law says that “the value of a network is the square of the nodes in the network." A graphical representation of that law looks something like this:

Figure 5- Metcalfe’s Law (showing the crossover point) and Reed’s Law

The goal of Metcalfe’s law was a way to figure out a crossover point, i.e. the number of nodes needed before the network would pay off.

Reed’s Law, which is more focused on social networks, says: ”Reed's law is the assertion of David P. Reed that the utility of large networks, particularly social networks, can scale exponentially with the size of the network.” Reed’s law looks at the value of subgroups in a network and how they can create more value more quickly in a network.

The Crowd Corollary to Metcalfe’s law says that you can drive the value of a network more quickly and further based on the level of engagement of the nodes in the network. What the social enterprise really comes down to is how engaged are your employees in being part of this social enterprise?

Tammy Ericson’s Harvard Business Review article puts it this way: "Why We Use Social Media in Our Personal Lives -- But Not for Work."  In a number of surveys related to this less than 35 percent of employees are ever actively engaged.

Do You Have the Right Kind of Organization for Social?

Thierry de Baillon, in a challenging blog, talks about "organizational redefinition and the pocket calculator." In this context, unleashing the power of horizontal networking inside and across organizations represents a promising answer to some of the toughest challenges companies -- and, beyond them, society -- face today. Businesses must repurpose themselves, and adapting to these challenges means acknowledging that work, as a set of activities, is changing in nature and that organizations must redefine themselves.

This shift is already happening on the Internet. Author Clay Shirky and others have shown how social technologies foster resilience and creativity and allow the connective tissue of societies to take back their central role in human life.

Alas, on the enterprise side, what we are seeing is mostly the use of these technologies to enforce work as usual; the change we are calling for is too often a desperate chase to more productivity and efficiency. As history tends to repeat itself, social technologies are the new pocket calculator.

Most problems businesses tackle today are way too complex to be addressed the way companies are currently run. Networked communities are better armed to deal with "wicked problems" than any leader, no matter how insightful or visionary he or she could be.

Many organizations today still exist as a series of silos, and “bolting on” social does not always improve the ability to share, collaborate or be social.

What is the Effort of Adoption?

Figure 6: The Effort of Adoption of a Social Technology in the Enterprise

Everyone is familiar with Geoffrey Moore’s law of adoption of technology (blue). Yammer has looked at some of the efforts required to get widespread adoption of a social technology in the enterprise (red line). Essentially the further along the curve you are, the more effort it takes to drive adoption.

The innovators and early adopters may be the ones bringing the technology into your organization, but there is a gap (from Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm) that has to be crossed by any technology before it starts to go mainstream. Jumping that gap could be from a success story, support from a C-suite executive, and proliferation by IT, or any number of other reasons.

Along with training, the early majority needs to get the WIIFM (what’s in it for me!), and have others use it successfully before they start to adopt the technology. In this way social is not very different from other technologies, what is different is the way and speed in which social technologies can be adopted.


Although the idea of a “social enterprise” is a great goal, it is often one that falls short. Some of the reasons include:

  • Management does not understand the value of social
  • The employees are not engaged and think it is just one more thing they must do
  • IT is fighting social because of their perceived (true or not) security risks
  • Social does include conversations and communities, but may not get work done
  • Social does not always get and maintain your attention
  • Not acknowledging the changing nature of work, and trying to use “social” to enforce current patterns of work
  • Bolting on social technologies does not make it easier for employees to share
  • The technology has to be proven and promoted before wide adoption occurs

Nevertheless social networks are making inroads in the enterprise. More often than not these days businesses are giving Facebook and LinkedIn a more serious look, and Twitter has wormed its way into the enterprise as a narrowcast channel for a specific topic or person. Edmodo, (which allows you to turn your classroom into a community) has grown from 1 million users in 2010 to 4 million in 2011.

We have all heard stories of hockey stick growth by social networks, but many of those are consumer oriented. Adoption in the enterprise, since they are more conservative by nature, will be a much longer and slower process.

Editor's Note: To read more by David Coleman: