The pain and promise of social business strategy


I'm about to embark on my sixth E2 conference in Boston this week, and it seemed like an appropriate time to take a look at where we stand with enterprise social or social business, or what we used to call all those years ago, in 2008, Enterprise 2.0.

Today, according to Gartner, 80 percent of enterprise social projects fail because of what they call inadequate leadership and an over reliance on technology. Michael Krigsman, president of Asuret, who has written frequently about IT project failure, says that social business projects are not actually typical IT projects and they fail for entirely different reasons than say a content management or a CRM implementation.

"Traditional IT projects fail because they run late, over-budget, or do not deliver planned results or value [cough, ECM projects]. With enterprise social, the complexity lies in motivating users to adopt the new community rather than in complex integrations with existing systems, to name one important driver of cost on typical IT projects," Krigsman said.

After five years of watching this space, I'm still perplexed by this failure rate. That's because if it's successful, an enterprise social project has the power to transform an organization and change the way it does business. It promises to reduce the over reliance on email as the chief means of collaboration and to break down departmental and hierarchical walls. It can encourage the free flow of ideas, leading to more innovation and a forum for evaluating those ideas and moving on them or rejecting them. It can make it easier to identify expertise and build logical teams with other people you might not have known existed before in the organization.

But perhaps we have listened too much to the hype and not worked hard enough to get to the promise, and it takes work to build a successful enterprise social project--lots and lots of work. It takes resources, and not just money, but people committed to building strong communities, people whose only job is to nurture those communities. It takes executive leadership pushing from the top and in some cases, it takes a cultural shift to get people talking openly when they may be used to being secretive.

We have seen enterprise social change substantially over the last five years. When I first got there, I spoke to a bunch of upstarts like Jive, Yammer, Socialcast, Socialtext and Traction Software to name but a few. After the first couple of years, we started to see this idea of a social enterprise get the attention of much bigger players like Microsoft, Cisco and IBM.

And we've seen some of the players get scooped up by these bigger companies, as VMware bought Socialcast in June 2011 and Microsoft of course bought Yammer in June 2012. If the pattern holds, we should be seeing one of these independent players get sucked up this month by someone.

We've also seen go social in a big way, including launching Chatter and building it into a more comprehensive social tool.

But like any software or approach, we've watched it mature from a stand-alone tool to one that's more incorporated (at least at its best) into the workflow of other tools. The surest way to kill an enterprise social project would appear to be forcing people to go to a separate tool to be social. It needs to be part of what they do, not something separate.

We've also seen a commoditization of sorts. I'm sure the vendors don't want to hear this, but when you walk the floor at a conference like E2 and you see the different offerings from enterprise social software vendors, they tend to look surprisingly alike with only minor ways of differentiating themselves. When enterprise software reaches that point, we know consolidation and acquisitions are not far off and we have seen this to some extent already.

As I walked the floor last year, the rumors about Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) buying Yammer were flying around and it occurred to me, every one of these vendors was ripe for acquisition. I would say this year, that's probably more true than ever.

But it seems that the real challenge lies, not in simply building a tool to offer enterprise social capability, but in helping people implement a successful social strategy. While every business can likely benefit from being more social, actually building a successful one is much harder than it looks, and you can't simply throw technology at the problem. - Ron