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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Friday, June 20th, 2008

Why isn’t social software spreading like wildfire through business?

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

Andrew McAfee asked a deceptively simple question to a panel at Enterprise 2.0 last week, “If Enterprise 2.0 tools and approaches really are so beneficial and powerful, why haven’t they spread like wildfire?” He was surprised that no one fingered management as the culprits.

In their initial responses all of them identified users, not bad managers or inadequate technologies, as the biggest barriers to faster and deeper adoption of Enterprise 2.0. Entrenched practices and mindsets, some degree of technophobia, busyness, and the 9X Problem of email as an incumbent technology combine, they said, to limit the pace of adoption. These factors slow the migration from channels to platforms and necessitate continued patience, evangelism, and training and coaching.

I didn’t expect the panelists to say that the Enterprise 2.0 tooklit is so incomplete as to hinder adoption, but I was a bit surprised that none of them identified management as a real impediment in their first round of comments. So I pressed the point by saying something like “I didn’t hear any of you point the finger at the managers in your organizations. Were you just being polite, or are they really not getting in the way of Enterprise 2.0? The new social software platforms are a bureaucrat’s worst nightmare because they remove his ability to filter information, or control its flow. I’d expect, then, that each of you would have some examples of managers overtly or covertly trying to stop the spread and use of these tools. Are you telling me this hasn’t happened?”

That is in fact what they were telling me, and I didn’t get the impression that they were just being diplomatic. They said that managers were just another category of users that needed to migrate over to new ways of working, and not anything more. In other words, the panelists hadn’t seen managers in their organizations actively trying to impede Enterprise 2.0.

I think the issue is far more complex than a simple “Is it the management?”. The IT department, for example, has become a common source of no, and issues around legal and compliance can scare people off. But management exert a strong and inescapable influence on how well social media is adopted in business.

Firstly, I have indeed come across managers who have refused point blank to use social software, who have actively campaigned against its use and have told their teams that they are not to use it. Whilst managers that vocal are rare, they do exist.

I have also seen managers who have damned the tools with faint praise, ostensibly supporting their use, but undermining them by planting seeds of doubt about things like how safe the data is or how long the tools will be around. These people talk up the tools in meetings, but never actually use them, so they give off mixed messages to their teams who then feel uncertain about what they should and shouldn’t do. If someone feels uncertain about a new tool, the chances are that they will avoid it or will interact with it only half-heartedly. This damages adoption just a surely as open hostility and is much more common.

More insidious - and much more common - are the indifferent managers. They are not vocal, and maybe not even all that negative about social media; they just aren’t interested in it. They may show up for coaching sessions, but they won’t bother using the tools, and they won’t encourage any of their team to use them either. They won’t complain, they’ll just ignore what they don’t want to engage with.

Now, in some ways these people are just “users” who need to be persuaded of value of using social tools, but to describe them that simply is to miss the point - managers have a subtle (and sometimes, not so subtle) power to either encourage or discourage their teams to behave in a certain way. They set the culture in their team, and the adoption of social media is about culture and behaviours rather than technology.

Managers who show disinterest are broadcasting a message to their team that new tools are of no value, and so they will dampen interest amongst people who actually are keen to learn and use new software, even to the point of stopping that person going to a training session or using the tool for their own work. This kills off grassroots adoption in a very quiet, subtle, almost unnoticeable way. You won’t here these people complaining. You won’t hear them talk about social software at all, but they can have a powerful effect on the success of a new tool.

But the main way that managers hobble the adoption of social tools is through simply not thinking it through, not considering what they are doing and why. They don’t provide the right sort of coaching or support, and then they wonder why people aren’t using the tools. They chuck up some blogs or wikis and hope that ‘nature will take its course’ and that people will just see the light and start using them. That, of course, doesn’t happen because not everyone has the time or the inclination to investigate new tools.

Once the early adopters - the people who are naturally curious and experimental - have discovered and started using social software, growth slows because just as in tech product marketing, there is a chasm between early adopters and the mainstream user than needs to be deliberately bridged. Businesses who have not thought about how to bridge this gap will find that adoption slows, stops, and then sometimes starts to contract. (Particularly if your key evangelists leave.)

Why doesn’t social media spread like wildfire in business? Because few people provide the tinder for a spark to ignite. Disinterested managers act like firebreaks, hostile managers act like rain, and managers giving off mixed messages act like firefighters pouring water on otherwise susceptible land. If you want a wildfire, the conditions have to be right for it to burn, which means thinking harder about what you’re doing.

Suw is holding a seminar on the adoption of social tools in business on June 27 2008. Deadline to sign up is June 25.

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10 Responses to “Why isn’t social software spreading like wildfire through business?”

  1. bbm Says:

    I wonder if the wrong conclusions are being drawn by an incomplete analysis. As a consultant who has worked for many companies (as internal and external) I can attest that social media is spreading in business. So the question is ‘how fast, particularly relative to other technologies and tools?’.

    Most technologies take about 15 years to penetrate business after being released from the academic world. It is said this is about as long as it takes for the ‘early-adopting’ students to rise to a level of management in the company where they can have a significant influence in adoption. This might tie up with your point about managers ’showing indifference’.

    Perhaps social media is doing pretty well, relatively speaking? My personal observation would suggest so.

  2. Paul Johnston Says:

    While I agree that some managers are blockers to social software, I would say that the adoption of social software is more prevalent among the young and the single-person consultant/business types.

    For that reason, it’s seen as not Enterprise 2.0, but more of a plaything. The value is rarely understood within a corporate environment because the environment is highly controlled by management processes.

    Social software is, in essence, a breakaway from the idea of process and is a scary thing for a company to take hold of. It’s more ethereal and less “value” based.

    The types of contacts I have expect to be able to look at applications and say “how can this make me/my company money?”. If it’s just glorified CRM (which a lot of social software is) it makes no sense.

    The change will come in about 2-5 years when some clever entrepreneur types make a replacement for enterprise email systems (something based on gmail probably) as they are that include the social aspect within them. When it’s adopted as a “standard” part of the corporate desktop, it will become part of the corporate world.

  3. Suw Says:

    I think the key phrase here is ‘like wildfire’. Certainly I see social media being adopted, but I agree with Andrew that its not spreading like wildfire.

    Clearly there is an incomplete analysis here because no one has all the data. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that the data that would be needed to analyse the spread of social media in enterprise is never going to become available because businesses in general don’t like to talk about it. The ones who do are the ones who are successful, so you have a chronic success bias problem.

    I’m not sure that it’s instructive to compare social software to other types of software because it’s elective where, say, word processors or accounts packages aren’t. So there are different factors at play.

    I also don’t have any real faith in teenagers and university students to bring social tools into the workplace. Contrary to popular belief, not all students are steeped in social tools - Kevin and I have both lectured at universities where the attitude of the students to technology was luke warm at best. Those that are hooked on Facebook and its kin are not necessarily then transposing that experience into the workplace, with many instead seeing such tools as toys and ways to organise their personal life which they believe have no place at work.

    Clearly not all teens and uni students see tech in this way, the same way that not all adults are technophobes. But I am skeptical of the idea that social tools are going to sweep the businessplace just as soon as the Facebook generation grows up. It’s not even a good idea to wait that long. Businesses need to change, and they need to change now.

    There are clear benefits to using social software that can be easily understood by management, but it’s a matter of understanding the specifics of that business and being able to frame the benefits in such a way as they are directly relevant to the person you’re talking to. Social software cannot and should not promise the broad sweeping benefits touted by underperforming ’solutions’ such as knowledge management. That’s too much like promising a hammer can build the Taj Mahal - a hammer can be used to build the Taj Mahal, but it’s not the only thing you need.

    Certainly email is now causing problems, but technology will not solve that problem, because it’s nothing to do with tech and everything to do with psychology and culture.

    And that’s really it: social software is about people. Which means businesses need to spend more time thinking about how people use these tools, how to communicate about them, how to help people understand them. I don’t see nearly enough of that going on, and when it does, it’s done by isolated pockets of enthusiasts who are hobbled by a lack of recognition, political power, and budget.

  4. Axel Schultze, Xeequa Says:

    If 300,000,000 (three hundred million) is not wild fire - what is it then? Social technology is growing faster than any other technology! Yes there are people who don’t participate, often managers who are focused on their 401K and their retirement - but …
    Enterprise 2.0 is long established - but if you are looking for SAP like $10 Million solutions look again - hence 2.0 and not next generation enterprise software.

    Look back in history, look into the 80’s. PCs where long established while the main frame warden still sit on their 3270 Terminals…

    Today’s IT leaders won’t recognize Enterprise 2.0 - and things like that happen approximately every 20 years, and it is happening now - again.

    Enterprise 2.0 is here - but not in IT and will never be in the current IT Manager generation - the next is in the start blocks. And nobody will remembers how it happened. Or do you remember when PC Service centers where established before it became our today’s IT department? Do you remember when industrialization began and how?

    Axel Schultze

  5. Ian Betteridge Says:

    Well of course, the other option is that actually “Enterprise 2.0″ tools aren’t actually that useful. While there’s a lot of noise around them, there’s (1) very little proper definition of what they actually are, and (2) no demonstrable, concrete return on investment.

    Businesses will rush to adopt anything that demonstrable significant ROI. If that’s not there, they won’t bother. Dull answer, I know, but true.

  6. bbm Says:

    There are a lot of good points in this discussion. Just a couple of follow ups:

    The 15 year adoption rule for technologies has been mapped to introduction of: relational databases, 4GL, client-server architectures, case tools, mobile computing and many more. There are academic studies that might be of interest (it’s not an arbitrary “rule” like sod’s law or the peter principle).

    You can’t compare the influence of a fresh entry-level geek on the IT shopfloor with that of the CIO/IT Director (who, supposedly, implements what s/he studied 15 years ago).

    I am involved in implementing enterprise technology in global organisations and have been doing this for 14 years. When I started most organisations had collaborative tools, often bespoke e.g built with Lotus Notes and were building what were known as knowledge management systems. Wikis, Forums and other collaborative tools have moved into that space. For one they are virtually free. For another some contain structured controls (access and editing authorisations) which match or better those of the collaborative tools of 10 years ago (and which seem to be essential to successful E2.0). And lastly they are not exclusive tools. Most of my clients have CRM with some kind of ‘Knowledge Management’ function but supplement that with social software tools on the side.

  7. Frank Says:

    My company discovered that the participation was actually worth very little. Far better to talk to your customers and route around the bureaucracy your company hides behind. Use direct communication like meetings and 1:1 telephone conversations and avoid the web tools like the plague.

    Very expensive, misleading, and a significant opportunity cost.My advice:

    Avoid $ocial Media Con$ultant$ !

  8. alan p Says:

    Started to respond In Defence of the Managers, but it turned into a post :)
    Over here on Broadstuff:

  9. Debs Says:

    Suw, in your reply above you said this:

    “And that’s really it: social software is about people. Which means businesses need to spend more time thinking about how people use these tools, how to communicate about them, how to help people understand them. I don’t see nearly enough of that going on, and when it does, it’s done by isolated pockets of enthusiasts who are hobbled by a lack of recognition, political power, and budget.”

    I worked in a company where the staff were treated like naughty children that were there to be controlled and sit quietly and do as they’re told. Although social media would’ve been a really useful tool for the company, its use was actively blocked by management because it wouldn’t do for the naughty children to actually *enjoy* doing their jobs…

    I suspect this is the case in many companies - you’re simply not *supposed* to enjoy your work!

    Compare that to companies like Innocent Smoothies, where blogging is actively encouraged - and they have a huge fanbase, something like 50,000 newsletter subscribers, the last I’d heard - their blog gets loads of visits and loads of comments, and their customers love feeling so involved.

    Any company that’s not embracing social media is missing out on a shedload of opportunities to interact with customers, in my opinion.

    @Frank: yes, you’re right, picking up a ‘phone and having a one-to-one conversation with customers is important too. But when it comes to telling all your stakeholders your news, and demonstrating thought leadership, you need to do it on a bigger scale and social media is perfect for that - the reach is wide, and the opportunities are there for stakeholders to get involved.

    Thanks for a really interesting article, Suw :)

  10. Brod Says:

    Interesting article. As a provider of “Enterprise 2.0 (E2.0)” software, we think that Suw is correct and that the larger organisations will be relatively slow to implement “Social Software”. And since the price of Enterprise 2.0 is a lot lower than that of previous generations of collaboration software, E 2.0 start-ups cannot invest time and marketing resources to convince large organisations to move.

    On the other hand, smaller companies are delighted by our products. Flexibility, ease of use, and low cost are key issues. Also the lack of “company politics” and over-cautious IT departments, mean that small companies don’t have the issues that Suw describes.

    Brod Justice

    qnoodle limited