Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Social Networks for the Enterprise

I've been meaning to put this entry down for weeks now, but in each passing week it seems I come to new realizations about social networks and the direction they are going. It's been about two weeks since I've had any new thoughts on the matter, and for now my thinking as settled down.

But before getting into my thoughts on social networks and how I feel they might be applied to the enterprise, I'd like to share a little story with you. A couple weeks ago I sat down for lunch at the local food-court down the road. An old neighbour of mine - Murray - who I hadn't seen in a while, saw me and sat down at my table. Within no time Murray (who is a senior manager for a large Canadian insurance company) started to vent about Facebook. Facebook as you may have heard, is the hottest social networking site out there, and in particular is most popular in Toronto with over 700,000 Torontonians, and growing. Murray brought up the fact that Facebook may have a huge valuation of over $10 billion, but is in fact costing companies significantly more than that in lost productivity. While I'd heard about companies (and even the Ontario government) banning access to Facebook, it really dawned on me as to what a time sucker this thing is. I was tempted to bring up the fact that maybe there were other issues surrounding employee managment, and would argue that this is the overarching problem. However, since that conversation I've read that about half of all corporations now ban access to Facebook.

With all this hype surrounding social networks it's inevitable that people are writing about how they might be applied to the Enterprise. So far, I haven't read anything that has really impressed me (I've just read this rah rah stuff on ZDNet about how it helped a bunch of people solve problems faster, but didn't explain how or why). So I thought I might build on a post I wrote in the past on Wikis in the enterprise, and relate this to social networks, but also [and more importantly] discuss the differences in social dynamics between consumer social networks and enterprise social networks. Actually, I would say that this is really what has not been discussed in enough detail by the general media: What is the nature of our relations in enterprises versus the nature of our relations with friends and family.

On that note let me first discuss what I am seeing happening on MySpace and Facebook. I am assuming you the reader have a somewhat cursory knowledge of these services. If you have no idea what these services are used for or why they are important, I suggest you do some research on these sites, and then return to this blog entry.

Moving on, MySpace was the first major social networking site to capture the popular imagination. There were sites before this (Six Degrees comes to mind), but MySpace became a hit for the following reasons:

  1. It was targeted to, and appealed directly to teenagers: Probably the most socially self-concious group that exists. This has changed somewhat due to concerns over sexual predators.
  2. It was completely open. Anyone could see anybody else's MySpace page without having to register or login.
  3. It was a platform unto itself. While building a MySpace page is mainly a "fill in the blanks" exercise, users are invited to add "widgets" and from there "pimp out" their MySpace page. Of course this spawned a widget cottage industry, which in turn makes the MySpace platform more desirable to its users.
Facebook on the otherhand succeeded mainly for these reasons:
  1. It was targeted to college students: Probably the second most self-concious group that exists.
  2. It was not so open, which made it more conducive to posting private details. Namely, users could feel more confident about posting personal photographs because the security measures were in place to ensure that only certain people ("friends") could see photos and other personal details.
  3. It included a news feed which allows you to see all your friends updates. This is perhaps the most powerful [and originally controversial] feature of Facebook, and the one feature that has generated the most stickiness.
  4. It also is a platform like MySpace. However, it's an arguably more powerful platform since the underlying capabilities of Facebook are more robust, especially the security.
Both MySpace and Facebook have their strengths and weaknesses, but in their curent state, I don't see either of them as being an ideal fit for the Enterprise. The other social network I didn't mention is LinkedIn, which I won't get into, but I also feel that this too is ill suited for the Enterprise.

In order to understand why this is, you have to ask yourself the following question: What is the nature of relationships in the Enterprise, and how are they different from relationships in mainstream social networks?

In a nutshell, I would say that the answer is thus: Normal social networks are typically defined by relationships that both parties willingly desire. In the Enterprise, relationships tend to be dictated by the Enterprise, and are thus of a utilitarian nature. While it's nice to work with people we're friends with, this isn't always going to be the case. However, if we can make these utilitarian relationships friendlier this is always a good thing. So, I would propose that any social network for the Enterprise be cognizant of the nature of the relationship, but also facilitate warmer connections. In that regard, divulging a certain amount of personal information is not a bad thing, but should be managed with a greater amount of astuteness, which should take its queue from what is normally discussed by the watercooler, or what would normally be posted on a cubicle wall (e.g. photos of spouse and kids).

So, fleshing out the nature of relationships I will describe the following types of Enterprise relationships that I am aware of, and how I think information should be managed with respect to these relationships. Since this is my fantasy, I will assume that the enterprise has Wikified itself, in the manner that I described a few months ago. The basic types of relationships, the types of information that should be accessible through those relationships, and how those information should be secured are as follows:
First: Operational versus Project relationships.
Operational relationships are ongoing and indefinite. Pretty much everyone has a relationship with HR. Furthermore, everyone has a relationship with the helpdesk. In some cases you will want to maintain personal relationships (HR is a good candidate here), and in other cases you will want to maintain a relationship with a proxy (the helpdesk is a good candidate here). For operational relationships, you don't really need to have very much insight into the documents and data that these entities rely on, and for the most part you would just have their contact details, and a few other things that these persons may make public. For example, HR could post (or link to) information about Insurance companies, company dress code policy, benefits, etc. But you don't need to know which IS/IT systems they are using to manage your benefits as this does not concern you.

Project relationships on the otherhand are temporal, but tend to require greater line-of-site to knowledge. So, as opposed to our relationship with HR, where we don't really need to know HOW they do their job, in the case of project relationships this line-of-sight is usually a good thing. As an example: If I'm on a project working with a team of: software developers; quality assurance professionals; business analysts; systems analysts; and project managers. It would save me time to be able to see what they're up to. Speaking in concrete terms, this means I would like to see what documents they are using (i.e. what Wikis they are frequently accessing), what databases they are connecting to, and generally what they are up to (I am also thinking of a Twitter RSS feed here - btw, Twitter on its own has the potential to be an extremely powerful management tool). I don't need to know everything about their life, just everything that they are doing NOW.

Second: Hierarchical relationships. The Enterprise always has been and always will be hierarchical in nature. Yes, we all aspire to the "flat" egalitarian Enterprise, but frankly speaking this simply goes against human nature. It will never happen as long as hairless apes run the world. However, we can manage it. Namely, it should be simple for our Enterprise social network to apply the correct security and privacy settings based on hierarchy. I should be able to see everything my subordinate is up to, but not so much as what my boss is up to. It's all right if she can see what I'm up to though. It sounds a bit cynical, but this is no different from out Enterprises curently function. As for peers, this gets a bit tricky and should be handled on a case by case basis.

Third: Intra-department versus inter-department versus inter Enterprise relationships. I don't have any hard and fast answers here, but this is definitely something that should be considered. Things of course get tricky when you're talking about relationships that go outside the Enterprise. Typically these would be vendor relationships, and typically from a knowledge management perspective, this is by default a one-way street. Namely, the Enterprise should collect information about the vendor, but be hesitant to share anything with them through a social network. While I can see a time where social networks cross over Enterprises, it's hard to say if this is a priority. To be sure, there is operational information that is routinely shared. For example, a shipping company would keep its customers informed about the status of packages and deliveries. But this hardly has anything to do with insight about any particular person within either Enterprise.

This is just a sketch of how a social network could be implemented in an Enterprise, and if nothing else some of the things that an Enterprise architect should be mindful of. At the very least, it should break down barriers of communication, and although I mentioned earlier that hierarchies are inevitable, they also can get in the way and ironically dehumanize us. As a simple start, if more large organizations had personal pages where people could add a few photos, say a few things about themselves, and post links to frequently referenced documents, it would make the place a lot less intimidating, and much easier for new hires or new transfers.
On a completely different note, I was contacted by Michael who writes the Data Governance Blog: http://datagovernanceblog.com/
Michael had some nice things to say about my own blog and I am very flattered and appreciative of that. Although I don't blog that often, one of my main goals has been to connect with likeminded individuals out there who see Enterprise Architecture and Data Management as a professional discipline, and who also understand that the discussion is not about Microsoft or Cognos or IBM or any other silver bullet manufacturer, but is something much more nuanced and sophisticated than any of these tech vendors would portray the problem as being. So, I am more than happy to hear from any others out there who see things the same way I do, or enjoys healthy debate.

For my next blog entry, I've got something a bit more abstract - but with real consequences planned. I am partially basing it on a lecture by my good friend Jonathan Ezer.

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