Lots of commentators point a dismissive finger at social intranets and enterprise social networks (ESNs), labeling them simply as vendor-driven hype. On the other hand, there is also plenty of ignorance around about the origins of social software and how it came to be used inside business.

Clay Shirky is credited for the phrase 'social software', not just because of the summit he organized in 2002 but because he was deeply involved with exploring the topic in the early part of the last decade.

Writing on the Many-to-Many group blog a little while after that first summit, Shirky recognized early on that people would be concerned that it was just hype:

people are rightly suspicious of grandiose claims of novelty. I can't speak for everyone talking about social software -- someone out there may indeed be hyping it as NEW NEW NEW -- but here we're all excited to bring insights from years ago into the conversation, as are most people I know thinking hard about group interaction."

2002 is an important date but not because it marks the invention of social software (it already existed); instead it is the moment that many people who had been investigating this technology agreed that something significant was emerging.

Social Software up to 2002

Using this date as a line in the sand, if you look backwards from this point you will find that many of the types of social media we are familiar with today already existed. In some cases we can trace their origins back to at least the 1970s. But the arrival of the World Wide Web (and the Mosaic Web browser) in the early 1990s was a critical factor that spawned a whole new generation of popular tools for users to create, share and consume content -- for example:

But the take up by enterprise users was limited. In fact the chaotic success of early Web-based intranets instead drove many corporate users towards solutions that would give them control and governance over content, not make it easier for users to publish (this was the "The Wild West intranet" period). And of course, these tools faced competition from competing technologies such as groupware (e.g. Lotus Notes) and later Web-based document-centric collaboration platforms (e.g. eRoom, SharePoint). With hindsight, the value of enterprise social software might appear to be obvious, but it was certainly not true at this time.

Enterprise Social Software after 2002

The rise of consumer social media after 2002 is better known and today services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are household names. Meanwhile inside organizations that had implemented intranets, the focus shifted to Web content management, in some ‘knowledgebases’ and later enterprise portals.

However, the potential for social software in the enterprise was not completely lost on everyone. In 2003, the New York Times reported:

Some business professionals are making use of any of the dozens of 'wiki farms' that, often for a fee, provide a host site for wikis or offer downloads of wiki software that make it possible to control access and keep careful track of revisions."

Others also started to see the limitations of the dominant enterprise technology mindset at this time. Writing for Harvard Business Review in 2004, Tom Davenport issued a call to "save IT's soul":

Information technology has a polarizing effect on managers; it either bedazzles or frightens. Those who are afraid of it shun it, while bedazzled IT departments frequently become prisoners of their own fascination, constructing elaborate technology architectures and enterprise information models to guide systems development. Senior executives who buy into this view promote technology as the key catalyst of business change. But such technocratic solutions often specify the minutiae of machinery while disregarding how people in organizations actually go about acquiring, sharing, and making use of information. In short, they glorify information technology and ignore human psychology."

The pendulum was beginning to swing back towards lighter, Web-based social software solutions again.

Then in 2006, Andrew McAfee thrust enterprise social software into the spotlight with an article in MIT Sloan Management Review, titled "Enterprise 2.0: The Dawn of Emergent Collaboration." His paper featured a case study on European investment bank, Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW) and its then CIO, JP Rangaswami. The first wiki at DrKW was installed in 1997; in 2004 they deployed a Socialtext wiki alongside B2Evolution Web CMS for blogs and a 'traditional' SharePoint intranet.

McAfee's case study represented just the tip of the iceberg. Since then the software pioneers in social intranets, like Socialtext and Atlassian Confluence, have been joined by a vast array of options -- for example: IBM Connections, Igloo Software, Interact Intranet, Jive Software, Yammer (now part of Microsoft), VMWare Socialcast, Salesforce Chatter, Newsgator, ThoughtFarmer and TIBCO tibbr. All of these social intranet tools offer vastly improved user experience and enterprise functionality than the social software available prior to 2002. However, none of these vendors needed to create the market for social intranets and companies have plenty of open source options to consider too, like Drupal Commons, Elgg, Status.Net and even WordPress.

Incidentally, DrKW‘s Rangaswami became Chief Scientist at Salesforce in 2010.

Learning Opportunities

Show me the Money

Despite the apparent success of using social software in the enterprise documented in McAfee's case study, this single example would never be enough to convince people of the bottom-line benefit of social intranets. The truth is, in 2006 there was a lack of data and a general feeling that IT didn't matter anyway. Even many of those with a strong predisposition towards social software in the knowledge management community remained skeptical, having been burnt before by technologies that failed to deliver.

Since 2006 numerous more case studies have appeared. The Deloitte Center for the Edge’s 2011 paper, Social Software for Business Performance, is probably one of the best examples that links the use of social software to organizational performance -- they reported specific examples showing benefits:

  • OSIsoft saw a 22 percent average improvement to call resolution time.
  • Alcoa achieved a 61 percent reduction in time spent managing compliance activities.

Predicting the exact performance of enterprise social software in a given situation is still difficult, although we have more and more aggregate data available to set expectations. Of course anyone expecting an easy ride with social software will be disappointed -- if anything, we are becoming more disciplined at how we implement internal social business projects, because of the need to identify and track tangible benefits as they are emerge.

John Seely Brown, co-author of the "Social Life of Information" in 2000, was a research advisor on Deloitte's paper. In that book, he had helped argue the case that information was socially situated and constructed. Now thanks to the effort and experience of many different people, we have a method, means and a business case for change.

But What About the Hype?

Social intranets did not suddenly appear over night on the whim of software vendor’s marketing department. The story of social intranets -- and more broadly of social software in the enterprise -- is a journey of at least a decade in the making. Where there is hype about social intranets, it is the idea that they are new fix-all solution.

Instead, remember that enterprise social software is not really a solution but a set of technologies that support a user-centered approach to IT. It is as much a mindset as it is a technology, yet the application of the technologies that are actually social remains a critical factor.

In an interview in 2006 Ward Cunningham commented:

Somehow you get computers involved and it's so easy to put rules in, and we've just spent 30 years on computer programs that tell you not to do things and then all of sudden people say, "Oh we should write programs that let our employees use their own minds and do what they think is right without trying to control them with these rules we put in computer programs.”

What wiki really did is it didn't do much for collaboration, it just didn't do anything against collaboration and that simple twist proves how much people want to collaborate."

Of course if you do meet some someone out there who you suspect is hyping it as the new magic solution to your organizational ills, I suggest you:

  • Test them on their knowledge of the history of enterprise social software.
  • Ask them about their methodology for dealing with organizational change.
  • Do due diligence and pick products that are genuinely social in architecture.

Editor's Note: Interested in reading more by James? Check out Focus on the User Experience for Enterprise Mobile Solutions