Do It Yourself

By Richard Hughes on December 08, 2010

Social business needs to be DIY. Starting an enterprise social network should be as simple as starting a simple blog.

“We’d love to start using enterprise social networking… but our IT department just doesn’t have the time or budget to support us”. Unfortunately, this is a common refrain. It’s well documented that IT departments spend around 80% of their budgets merely “keeping the lights on” – keeping existing systems such as email, CRM and ERP operational, and making sure everyone’s PC is working. This leaves very little time or money to explore new initiatives such as social business.

But why do you need IT? Social business is about people – there shouldn’t be technical obstacles to enabling better communication between employees or with customers. Nor should a lack of IT budget be used as an excuse for inertia.

There really isn’t any need for IT to be an obstacle or an excuse. Millions of people around the world have established their own blogs using web-based services. Many of them have set up their own fully-fledged social networks, and this hasn’t required IT support. So why should it be any different for business? Quite simply, it isn’t.

When we say, “social business needs to be DIY”, there are two aspects to this:

  • Establishing the social business network
  • Ongoing administration, adoption and regulation of the network

As we wrote in Choose The Cloud, the setting up of a social business network need not involve costly and time-consuming server installation and configuration; many social business services are provided as Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions which can create a social network for you in under a minute.

But equally important is empowering users of the network to be able to administer and regulate that network themselves.

Network administrators need to be able to:

  • Invite members to join the network
  • Remove members from the network
  • Control the basic content security and sharing settings of the network
  • Remove inappropriate content

Ordinary members of the network need the ability to:

  • Create content
  • View and comment on other network members’ content
  • Form communities of interest, and decide whether these are open to the entire network or restricted to selected members
  • Take part discussions with other members

…all without calling IT.

It is the lack of this user empowerment that led many intranet initiatives from the last decade to stall. Not only did they require significant IT effort for setup, they gave little power to individual users of the intranet to keep the content fresh and compelling. Social business applications will only succeed if they learn the lessons of these stalled intranets and directly empower users.

Aside from the obvious “get-things-done” benefits of that empowerment delivers, there is also an important psychological advantage. Empowered users will feel a much greater emotional tie to a network that they are directly involved in creating and maintaining. They will be far more motivated to participate in community discussions to shape how the network is used and to ensure that other members behave in a responsible manner. This makes one of the goals of every social network, self-governance, a far more attainable target.

However, the “do it yourself” mantra should not be seen as inciting insurgency against IT departments, or inviting chaotic adoption of whatever web-based solution each employee likes the look of this week. It’s great that so many business-focused products are available to try without any setup cost, but that doesn’t mean that companies should embrace an “anything goes” culture. That path leads to so-called “shadow IT”, where there is a loss of control of where company information is stored. Any coherent and successful enterprise social networking strategy requires careful consideration of which tools should be used, and a mandate from management. This is equally true whether the system was selected by IT or another department.

Some IT departments may be reluctant to relinquish control of which web solutions are used by the company. This is understandable, but increasingly unsustainable. Forward-looking IT departments will position themselves not as the gatekeepers whose approval is necessary before any technology-based service can be used, but as the enablers who help businesses navigate the many opportunities that web-based SaaS solutions provide. Rather than saying, “here is the social business solution we approve”, wouldn’t it be great to hear an IT department say “here are three we think you should look at – let us know which one you like the most”. Of course, this sort of IT department does exist, although not everyone is lucky enough to work in a company that has one. Social business is often described as cultural transformation – it is just as much a transformation for IT as it is for business.

“Do it yourself” both presents opportunities and carries responsibilities. Enabling the creation of social business networks without any dependency on over-stretched IT departments is a hugely liberating opportunity for organizations. But care must be taken in selecting the right tools for the job to avoid descent into the world of “shadow IT”.