Social network tools often have a consumer and freebie connotation – wikis, blogs, IM, collaborative sites. Pundits point out that a common thread, besides being able to support communities of interest, is their “bottom-up” nature. By that, it is meant they can be installed, or used without anyone else’s help and in business that means without the involvement of the IT department. Perhaps that is an unnecessary and misleading restriction in definition. It is true that many consumer tools find a business niche without, and in spite of an IT department. The PC was a classic example – built for business but reviled in some organizations, embraced in others. In all, it was only with the IT department’s support that the PC could be networked or integrated tightly into the data infrastructure that already existed. Guerrilla tactics only get you so far in an organization and after that, you need the cooperation and help of others.
Another common thread is that they tend to be free or free for a while or free as long as you can tolerate someone else trying to sell you something. Perhaps that thread is also too restrictive. Free often only means the vendor is extracting revenue from someone other than you, such as an advertiser. Or free means a very basic service, and other useful services or add-ons are available for a price. Give away the camera, the razor, the web site, and make your money further down the line. Free is illusory.
Much of what has been written about Web 2.0 and social network tools originally stems from analysts or journalists who work as freelancers or in loose knit communities of freelancers. Their view of a business organization can be very different from the world familiar to corporate employees. For some, their ambition for social network tools is underpinned by aspirations of global egalitarianism. Social networks somehow become the mechanism for a new socialism.
The other major influence on what is written about social networks comes from advertisers or people who want to attract advertisers. To an advertiser, a community of interest is a self -selected target market accessible in one fell swoop. Targeting offerings to select communities has always been one of the challenges that marketers face. Get like-minded people to group together on their own and you have your target market on a plate. But consumer or even B2B community advertising shouldn’t define what makes a social network tool.
Get beyond the hot cauldron of web 2.0 hype and you see very little of what these startups produce finding its way to the table of corporations. Most are chasing the consumer or carrier bubble and think they can adapt to the needs of button-down business. It doesn’t work like that. You need to start with a security model that large organisations will accept from the outset. You can’t bolt it on later. You need to think at the outset how to integrate with the core data infrastructures that already exist in corporate land. So whilst there are many, many tools a very small business could make great use of to support a team of home workers, there are actually pretty few that are suitable for medium to larger enterprises.
Business social network tools may allow people to self organise in teams – or that may require the help of the IT department. To really make these tools sing, they most definitely will need IT’s help – to presence enable applications, to extend the corporate directory or intranet or to incorporate the tools into CRM or ERP applications -in other words, to be really useful. Business social network tools can be free, but businesses want supported tools to mitigate risk. Even if the initial cost is zero, someone is going to be trained or contracted to provide support. Their choices can’t be cavalier because there are too many existing interdependencies. Finally, most businesses don’t have a social agenda beyond maximizing shareholder value. The tool is there to support a job that needs to be done.