Global CIO: Fear Of Facebook For The Enterprise

Enterprise social networking, at its worst, looks like another way to get buried in data.
I spoke recently with Dan Matthews, CTO of the ERP company IFS, about his ideas for tapping the best of social media in the enterprise through "collaboration in context." It means taking the best of ad hoc collaboration that social media allows, and putting it inside enterprise applications, so the information sharing happens at the point in a process it’s most relevant.

IFS is early on in exploring how it might offer this. In a simple approach, since this summer IFS has offered a "sticky note" feature on several of its enterprise software applications, so employees can share information that doesn't fit in one of the more formal fields on a form, but that may be of use to the next person to look at it. Matthews doesn't pretend it's a revolution, but he likens it to the kind of informal, effective, as-needed information sharing that happened when everyone shared an office, and dealt in physical documents. One company using it had a file that "ended up with a stack of 25 stickies on it," Matthews says. "It's not what we intended, but it shows there's a need for this."

A sticky note doesn't replace the need for formal processes (or for dealing with whatever deeper issues behind needing 25 sticky notes to get something done). But I've wrestled with this problem myself, wanting to convey something as I pass a digital article on to my colleagues but having no field within the publishing app to do so. So I do a horrible thing: send an e-mail to anyone who might touch that file, hoping they'll remember it when they're back in context of that file. "That's half of my mail flow," says Matthews, of such general information messages. "Maybe offloading that out of in boxes will help some."

Research suggests this whole idea of connecting social media and enterprise software faces deep skepticism. According to IFS, a study of 265 manufacturing executives, conducted by a third-party research firm, that asked how important integration of ERP with social media tools will be in selecting ERP in the future found that two-thirds said not very or not at all important. Asked what value it saw in linking ERP with Facebook or LinkedIn, 37% said no potential value at all. The most often-cited benefit was gathering information on your company or competitors, not a particularly sophisticated use.

Why don't IT pros see more promise? It's because most of us take comparisons such as Facebook for the enterprise too literally, Matthews says. "If you just look at this as a slight improvement on the stuff we do use social media for, the stuff in our private life, you might not see the value,' he says. "You think 'How would photo sharing at work benefit us?' Very few people take the leap and think what completely different things might it mean or be used for in a business environment."

That's where we'll end up with enterprise social networking--with something dramatically different than what we’re starting out with today, and something far different than Facebook. My hunch is it'll be less of the singular destination that Facebook is, and more a feature that appears in a lot of what we do.

Global CIO small globe Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek.

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