Enterprise Social Media: a Fad or the Future?

Social Media has within the consumer space has been a defining phase in the evolution of the IT Industry. The speed and scale of the growth of Facebook, Bebo and the like has been quite breathtaking.

For some time now there has been a call for business to embrace social media. The truth is that takeoff in the enterprise has been much slower. The recent ESM Conference at Olympia was a chance to listen to commentators on the space and also the experiences of early adopters. Inevitably, at a Conference like this there is a tendency towards the converted, but within the day there was a wide range of views from "ESM is much like any other IT project" to  "ESM is the most significant invention since the industrial Revolution".

Unlike many conferences there was enough interesting content to fill a blog for a year. For me, what was most revealing was that across different sectors of the economy and whether for internal communications or business development there was clearly a set of cultural norms that seemed to be central to generating value from ESM. Openness, transparency, integrity, collaborative and team-based came out time and time again as the attitudes of those who saw benefit from the technology.

One friend cynically pointed out to me that in his view that meant that 90% of businesses would never get value out of ESM. Time will tell..

Interestingly, as the day developed I got a sense of déjà vu.

What was noticeable about the case studies was how quickly and cheaply the initial systems had been to set up. Also, the developments in the main were done without the involvement, and in some cases even knowledge, of the IS function.

One example was of a project that cost 10K and took 6 weeks. When handed over to IS, the costs rose to £250K and it was to take a year. Looking round the audience there were lots of knowing nods there. Oh dear, IS will surely die because it's slow, expensive and remote.

Haven't we been here before? I remember exactly the same arguments and even the same scale of cost savings being touted around the conference circuit in the late 1980s for the PCs.

Yet early in the 1990s, I was working with one of the banks when they tried to understand their true IT costs. They had over 4000 spreadsheets( developed without IS support) on a variety of software ( Lotus 123, Quattro Pro, Visicalc..) on DOS, CP/M, Mac and Windows. A few even turned up on Unix and various proprietary platforms. They had over 50 PC Manufacturers kit.

Many were poorly documented, unsupportable and turned out to have errors. All this cost saving was costing a fortune! Add to this, multiple email systems and various other ad hoc systems and you have a picture of what was uncovered. To control costs, a phase of standardisation and central control was needed.

Now I left the conference trying to unpick whether the loss of control by IS is a price to be paid for innovation, which means that we will see a phase of IS regaining control downstream or whether this signals a structural shift away from IS.

Many IT departments were in truth slow to embrace the PC, seeing it as a “toy”.

Can we learn lessons from the PC "revolution" for forecasting the Web 2.0/Social Media  "Revolution"?

Of course, the standardisation phase of the PC was accompanied by a change in the business model for IT, the rise of outsourcing. This time we have Cloud Computing!

There are of course significant differences from the late 80s. More of the stuff is based on open standards. There is greater interoperability and better tools. At the same time, the challenges of security in this open world are expensive to design and implement.

It's quite easy to save money by not documenting, not error checking, not securing, not training and so on.

There is a difference between ease of use in a consumer space and in an enterprise where customers want quality and consistency, and lack of security and other corporate functions can be catastrophic.

The challenge of early outsourcing was that the benefits turned out to be hard to realise. It was difficult to draw contracts that worked for both parties. Identifying the real base line costs was a significant challenge

My conclusion is that if enterprises are to embrace social media and to get value from the technology investments then we can de-risk the projects by looking to our own history and to the lessons of the PC era. That is the real experience that IS can bring to the future of ESM whether you believe it’s just another technology or the most important revolution in 200 years.

About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

See all posts by Chris Yapp
June 2018

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