Value your Web 2.0 guerillas

On a train journey to Manchester today, I read Information Age‘s Effective IT 2009 report and focused on its section on communications and collaboration, including an article, Social understanding, mulling over the slow adoption of Web 2.0 technologies within enterprises.

This article underlines that social computing can create new dynamics of information and knowledge transfer among employees (interactions often stifled by formal knowledge management systems and procedures). It cites Proctor & Gamble’s experience of creating a social network site, BeingGirl, as part of its marketing strategy to target teenage girls. And, facing an acceleration in the proportion of its workforce retiring each year, US high street bank Wachovia used blogs and wikis to capture company knowledge before it walked out the door.

Such examples help show that the ‘soft’ benefits of social media – enhanced communication, engagement, identity – can also be matched by solid returns on investment that justify management backing. However, the magazine’s survey data showed that businesses planning to deploy Web 2.0 technologies in the next 12 months were actually slightly down on 2008, from 20% to 18% – possibly because IT budgets are being cut, or because “most companies are fearful or flippant of social computing” (to quote Gartner).

Nonetheless, the social computing revolution may already be happening unofficially within organisations. From my own experience within the UK construction industry, employees across numerous well-known firms – including architects, consulting engineers, contractors and materials suppliers – are already using blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social applications that aren’t (yet) officially sanctioned by their IT departments.

In other industries (as Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams point out in their book Wikinomics), such “guerilla adoption” (or “shadow” IT), often by a minority, can rapidly deliver demonstrable business benefits (eg: more responsive customer service, faster new product development). Moreover, such early adopters can also:

  • provide useful feedback on what social media tools work best
  • help persuade their colleagues about the virtues of the different approaches they use
  • having gone through the learning curve themselves, gently introduce colleagues to the (n)etiquette of using the tools efficiently and effectively.

But not always. For some Web 2.0 guerillas, the attraction of doing something unofficial is, well, doing something unofficial. As soon as it is legitimised, it may no longer be attractive and they could well discontinue their activities. In worse cases, they may even resent being ‘outed’ and start using Web 2.0 techniques in a more malign fashion. This is where having appropriate corporate policies on use (and abuse) of social media become important. In my view, while a ‘light touch’ approach is always preferable, there may be times when you need to clamp down on potential sources of internet-delivered internal dissent.

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