My diginomica colleague Den Howlett is renowned (or notorious, depending on your point of view) for his robust views on social media in the enterprise — which grew loudest just as hype around what used to be called enterprise 2.0 was reaching its peak.
Den consistently demanded proof points that showed how social collaboration delivered measurable business value within the enterprise. These were few and far between, unless one looked beyond the boundaries of the enterprise to stray into the related field of social media marketing.
Now that the whole idea has plunged into the gloomy depths of what Gartner's Hype Cycle model calls the trough of disillusionment, he and like-minded critics may feel they were justified in declaring enterprise 2.0 a passing fad that proved to be a wasteful distraction from productive work.
But does this mean that the continued growth in adoption of social collaboration platforms including Microsoft's Yammer, Salesforce.com Chatter (now subsumed into its Salesforce1 platform) and Tibco's tibbr is just a hangover and will soon begin to trail off? Or is social collaboration ultimately destined to reach its own plateau of productivity?
Yammer CTO Adam Pisoni is convinced that enterprise social networking will prove its worth. As I explained earlier this week, he has created an entire business philosophy called The Responsive Organization to show why. My personal take is that, even if you accept that becoming a responsive organisation is the problem to be solved, it doesn't necessarily follow that Yammer or similar social messaging platforms are the required solution. However, they may be a key part of the solution.
Clearly, enterprise responsiveness depends on digital connectivity. A platform like Yammer provides an excellent messaging layer, but other tools are needed too. At best, it is an important element of the answer. But there remain some crucial missing ingredients.
An event hosted by Yammer in Amsterdam this week had enough customer perspectives to be able to understand what still needs to be done. It became evident that there are three major stumbling blocks to be overcome — one of them technology-related, the other two having more to do with people and culture.
1. The technology's not ready
Microsoft acquired Yammer in summer 2012 and is still in the throes of integrating the technology into its other products, most notably Office — an engineering effort that Pisoni is in charge of. There's a lot more integration still in the pipeline to other Microsoft products. Integrating social messaging with other functions is crucial because it removes obtrusive friction from these interactions.
Examples include being able to escalate out of a Yammer conversation directly into a video conference; collaboratively editing an Office document while discussing it at the same time in Yammer; or integrating with Dynamics to bring conversations back and forth with customers.
Before any of that can happen in Yammer, Pisoni explained that various infrastructure pieces needed to be put into place to support functionality such as single sign-on and access management, defining and managing groups, and file sharing:
"It's all predicated on the deep back-end work we're doing right now. We're getting through the bulk of the hard stuff right now. [Once that's done], the other integrations are going to be a lot easier."
Looking ahead, there's another challenge that technology will have to solve as adoption increases and thus the volume of interactions goes up. There's a danger that useful information that's important for people's jobs will get drowned out by the sheer volume of less relevant information. It's important to have the volume, said Pisoni — "more information is always better" — but the platform will have to help filter it by surfacing information to each user in context. There's much more work to be done on this aspect, he said:
"It's incumbent on us to use technology to surface the right information at the right time.
"It's unobtrusive but uses the value of the network so it doesn't overwhelm you. I think we're just at the beginning of this."
So that's the first barrier: the technology to make these digitally assisted social interactions fully productive in an enterprise context is still in its infancy.
2. The networks aren't big enough
Scale is crucial to any network proposition. If the network doesn't have enough participants then it lacks value as a network. At present, the vast majority of enterprise social networks are still at first base, grappling with the challenges of getting started, and of showing enough value that others are persuaded to join.
This was a recurring theme in the customer stories heard through the day at the Amsterdam event. Gaining participation, finding use cases, having them become successful and then making sure that others heard about them — this is the pattern that every would-be Yammer champion seeks to perfect.
Pisoni's advice was to smart small with like-minded colleagues: "Don't feel you have to convince everyone in the company."
The European Commission — the civil service of the European Union — provides a typical case in point. It has taken its network almost five years to reach significant scale. First implemented in 2009, adoption has steadily grown year by year. Out of a total 32,000 employed by the Commission, there are now 15,000 on the Yammer network, all of whom have opted in voluntarily.
Initially, users were people in the IT and communications functions, I learned from the Commission's Yammer champion, Julie Guegan, internal communication officer in the directorate-general, human resources and security. Take-up has since accelerated for learning and education, which now contributes the most active usage.
The other significant use is for media monitoring and rebuttal: users who want to check out the facts behind reports that they see in national or local media can post on Yammer to see who knows the real story and then challenge the original report if needed.
One feature that's especially useful in a multilingual organization like the Commission, which has 23 official languages, is the automatic translation within Yammer, said Guegan. This can also translate entire documents attached to the conversation.
There comes a point in Yammer adoption within any organization where the business value begins to crystallize, said Mike Grafham, worldwide Yammer customer success lead:
"Communication on an enterprise social network is work — if you're doing it properly, it's just work. That's when you know you've got it right, when people are doing their work but they're using the fact they can draw on the network to achieve that thing ...
"Helping people understand what this means for them individually drives the success of the network. It starts to grow exponentially once people start to see that value."
This is the second obstacle: the network cannot have value until it scales. But to scale, it must first show value. This has to happen separately in each individual enterprise, until such point that there are enough success stories widely known for mainstream adoption to begin.
3. No one really knows how to do this
Any new way of working, especially when it's driven by technology, encounters resistance at first. People don't see why they should change the way they've always done things. At the same time, there's no clear agreement on how this new way of doing things works best. This makes it easy for naysayers to seize on setbacks or inconsistencies to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt — which gives rise to the notorious acronym FUD.
In many organizations, it's middle management that proves least enthusiastic about social networking. Leaders see the potential benefits and front-line workers feel empowered. But those in between — especially in traditionally structured, hierarchical organizations — see only problems. This had been the case at the European Commission, said Guegan:
"The middle manager feels threatened by this new way of working and communicating. The challenge is to show them how they can benefit."
She recounted how she had spent 90 minutes in a training session with one manager who had grown more and more red in the face, citing all kinds of objections. In the end, he became one of the most passionate users, she said:
"Now he's one of our champions ...
"He managed to understand I'm not a geek, I'm not here to sell him a technology — but I see a lot of potential from the tool to share ideas so that a lot of people can be entrepreneurs.
"If you share an idea it's probable that you will find someone who can help you make it grow."
Others can be too eager to share ideas and they have to be shown the best way to operate, she added:
"People share files on Dropbox that are sensitive. They open groups on Facebook to discuss sensitive projects. They don't realize the risks.
"For us Yammer has reduced the level of risk in our organization because if people share files through Yammer, it's a better situation.
"It's a question of educating people on the real risks and the opportunities and balancing the risks and the opportunities."
Yammer is helping the Commission to open up to new ways of working and break out of the constraints of the old hierarchies, she revealed:
"Our vice president Neelie Kroes now works in an open-plan office — [that's a] big change.
"There are organizational changes taking place more quickly."
More dramatic changes are taking place at other organizations. As we've discussed elsewhere on diginomica, today's connected digital technology is breaking down barriers to enable a new form of frictionless enterprise that harnesses resources from outside the organization as easily as those within it. These are changes that enterprise social networking can facilitate and leverage, said Pisoni:
"Increasingly employees don't even work for the company. We're seeing a huge increase in customers being involved in ideation. We've known for decades that if we collapse the distance between us and our partners we can be more efficient."
Thus there are two layers to this third obstacle. One part of it is the lack of skills employees have to use these new forms of working. The other is that this is a journey of discovery for every enterprise into hitherto unexplored forms of organization.
With three such obstacles to overcome, it should be no surprise that it's taking time for social collaboration to demonstrate value in the enterprise. Of course it remains true that, at the peak of the hype cycle, many outrageous and unsustainable claims were made for the efficacy of social media in the enterprise. But at the same time, recognizing that these obstacles exist provides a rationale for continuing to persist with the concept.
It is worth investing in advancing the technology, building up the networks and exploring the new ways of working they enable. As each of these components develop and mature, the value of enterprise social collaboration will grow. As that value continues to grow, it will in the end reach a level that vindicates those who believed in it from the start.