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Six Myths of Social Software

So for the past five years or so, I’ve been a skeptic when it comes to social software. (Take a look back early in my quest at my review of Wikinomics, Groundswell, The Wisdom of Crowds, The Long Tail, or Linked.) It’s not that I don’t believe that social software can’t add value – rather it’s I believe that it’s too often poorly understood by business and it’s seen as the cure for whatever ails an organization. Over the years I’ve tried to keep a healthy respect for folks who are social advocates while simultaneously viewing the prospects of social in the enterprise with some level of doubt. Over the years I’ve had experiences with how people and organizations have trumpeted the value of social only to leave it on the broken road of failed initiatives quickly thereafter. In all fairness, I’ve seen an unreasonable number of social projects killed because of management misconceptions and fears. So as a result I wanted to post my top six social myths that organizations believe with the warning that some of these support the deployment of social software – and some do not.

6. Build It and They Will Come

When started reviews it didn’t take off. Seriously, people. When they built it no one started reviewing. They had to kick start the review process to get it to a critical mass where the reviews would keep coming in on their own. They had a cold-start problem. No one knew what reviews were supposed to be so no one did it. It took seeding the system with reviews, getting folks to take that first step to get the ball rolling to the point where it’s a very effective review center now. It should be said that’s marketing and analysis engine sending out reminders for folks to do reviews even today is probably a contributing factor to their success – but I come back to reviews weren’t easy even for the juggernaut of the Internet. So what makes you so certain that on your Intranet you can get folks to review – or even rate – documents?

Ultimately every social initiative in the organization will have a cold-start problem. There won’t be any social norms and most folks neither want to create them nor violate them because they didn’t understand them. As a result there’s a huge inertia to getting a social project started. If you think that you can just build it and the “social” will magically happen, you’re likely to be quite disappointed. So if you’re planning to implement social software, plan how you’re going to launch it – and support it for at least 90 days and ideally longer.

5. “It’s Just as Easy to…”

Someone will say something like “With Yammer I can post a short update to a group that cares about what I’m working on.” The immediate response from IT will be, “You can post that to a discussion forum in SharePoint.” Um, yea. Sure, 20 clicks later you’ll have an update that people can find if they do the same 20 clicks – instead of having a “river of news” type update on their screen. You’ll excuse me this isn’t the same. Ease of use and the experience of the interaction does matter.

A fundamental lesson I learned from eCommerce years ago is every action you require decreases (sometimes exponentially) the probability of the result you’re looking for. In the eCommerce world that was a sale. Take a look at’s checkout process. There are few steps (who came up with one click ordering?) and the number of distractions when you’re going through them is cut to the minimum. In the organization that’s simple communication (and coordination) – or it’s an attempt to capture knowledge. (See my book review of Lost Knowledge.) So there is a difference between 2 clicks and 20. Between seeing something without action and requiring action.

If you organization is ready to share information and the tooling is getting in the way – you may need to deploy a social tool to reduce the friction in communication and collaboration. When you deploy it, you’ll want to make it clear what the expectations are, make it easy to get to, prominent, and easy to use.

4. Pent Up Demand

I opened the door to this myth. I opened the door to the idea that an organization may have a large unmet appetite for a social tool that has not yet been deployed. This myth is so prevalent there are law suits from big foot and the lochness monster asking for a restraining order. Everyone believes that the problem is that IT isn’t delivering the social tools that the Gen Yers in the organization are clamoring for. If IT would just implement some sort of Facebook for the enterprise the problems would somehow magically evaporate and every meeting would cease to be boring. I believe, it would be replaced with the incessant sound of people quietly stamping out a million short messages instead of feigning attention to the meeting leader.

There is no doubt that there is some pent up demand. There’s pent up demand whenever you don’t have something – but how much pent up demand is there? I’ve owned a pinball machine for a number of years now. For the first few years I played it a lot. Recently, I’ve not played it so much. (In fact it’s broken if anyone knows a pinball repairperson around Indy.) So there was some level of demand when I got it but not 10 years of demand. How much demand do you really have for the latest enterprise social application?

If you believe there’s pent up demand for social in your organization, measure it. If you don’t know how, check out How to Measure Anything. You won’t be able to get an exact sense for the pent up demand but you’ll have the opportunity to better understand what the biggest demand really is.

3. We’re All One Big Happy (and Dysfunctional) Family

No matter how good the commitment to an organization is, people are people. We may not openly behave as teenage children in high school forming cliques and openly jeering at jocks, nerds, or people who are simply different than us – but the dynamics are largely the same. We form alliances with people in the organization whose ideas and needs are most like ours. We bristle when someone from outside our camp suggests that we’re doing something wrong – or even that we could be doing something better. As much as we like to see ourselves as one big organization we’re really a set of overlapping circles of influence and agreement. (If you want to see the idea of organizations as a network of commitments you may want to read Understanding Computers and Cognition.)

What does this have to do with social software? Well somehow we picture that after implementing social software we’ll have a world with rainbows and puppies and people playing harps around a fire singing Kumbaya. However, while social software may make it easier for us to be more social – to share who we are – it won’t inherently help us to like or respect the folks that we work with.

So if you’re going to deploy social software you’re going to want to get some family counseling too. Make sure that you support the objective of making the organization work better together with the software – not just assume that if you get everyone together that it will all be alright. Do you remember your last family reunion? Do I need to say more?

2. Water Cooler Effect

It’s time to return to an objection leveled against social software that isn’t fair or accurate. One of the often leveled accusations by senior management is that if we implement social software we won’t get anything done. It will be like putting the proverbial water cooler in every cubical. The problem with this thinking is that it ignores the social aspects of our human existence. It ignores our need to be connected and care for each other. Without trust we can’t get anything done and to build trust we have to feel like we know another person. There’s a lot of evidence that a lack of trust reduces performance substantially – so anything that can be done to build trust is critical to long term success. (Even those silly team building exercises – sorry, they work.)

No large business deal has been done without the leaders of the organization going to dinner, playing a round of golf, or connecting in some non-business way. We simply do not function as humans from the perspective of logical decisions devoid of emotion. We need the emotional connection to the other person to trust.

When you create the right atmosphere where everyone wants the best for the organization, the problem of folks wasting their days won’t really be an issue – besides that’s really an HR issue that has nothing to do with social software. If folks want to not do their work – they’ll find a way to do just that. Look for and direct the behaviors you want and deal with individual performance problems as that – individual performance problems.

1. Silver Bullet

No, social software doesn’t kill werewolves, though I’ve not seen any studies to this effect. It really doesn’t matter what your problem is – if you believe it doesn’t matter what your problem is and you believe social software will fix it. (You may need to reread that.) Just like SharePoint, social isn’t a silver bullet. For that matter there are no silver bullets. You’re not going to solve a problem that you don’t understand. So I’d encourage you to look deeper when you’re confronted with a problem that you think social will solve. What is the real problem? Are we dealing with human behavior or some technical limitation?

To believe you need a silver bullet is to believe in werewolves. You might as well believe in unicorns – I think you’ve got an equal chance of finding either in your organization.

Ultimately, I’d support your organization deploying social software if you’ve got an organizational change initiative that it supports. I’d encourage you to rethink deploying social software because “it’s cool” and in the absence of a real effort to change the organization. Please don’t implement technology for technology’s sake.

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