Twenty-Somethings Leading Facebook, Twitter Enterprise Charge

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Analysts from Nielsen Norman, IDC and Gilbane say front-line workers are leading the charge, forcing senior management to go with the flow or stem the tide

Despite hype surrounding the use of wikis, blogs, social networks and other tools in the workplace, social software in businesses is still more of a grassroots effort led by frontline users than it is a company-wide collaboration practice, according to a new Nielsen Norman Group study.

The user experience research firm cased 14 companies in six countries for the 168-page report, “Enterprise 2.0: Social Software on Intranets: A Report From the Front Lines of Enterprise Social Software Projects,” co-authored by Patty Caya and Jakob Nielsen. Participants include IBM, BT, Intel, Sun Microsystems and Sprint Nextel; other companies preferred anonymity.

“Underground adoption of off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools might seem out of character in the enterprise, but users see the value of these tools and are more often than executives able to translate that value to an internal use,” said Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group.

The front-line workers, a kind of Facebook Generation, are leading this adoption. Members of this group are typically 20-somethings just out of college, or even those who have been using social tools for four or five years. Such workers have been groomed on social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, or even hosted their own blogs through Blogger, Movable Type, WordPress or some other platform.

“As social tools begin to shape workers’ expectations for how they get things done, it raises expectations for how they collaborate and communicate and participate in content development,” said Nielsen Norman Group user-experience specialist Patty Caya. “The social Web has turned consumers into producers and this will impact how they work.”

Accordingly, these workers expect blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and other outlets in the workplace. Nielsen found that many senior managers still consider social tools something their teenagers use, highlighting a disconnect between management and their subordinates.

Managers risk losing workers who expect innovation in the outside world to reflect directly on how they communicate at work. Herein lies the Catch-22: Adopting such tools too quickly can trigger a culture clash that leads to unintended consequences, such as information leaks.

These managers “are turning a blind eye to underground social software efforts until they prove their worth, after which they integrate them more thoroughly,” Nielsen said, noting that the tools are a means to an end for solving business problems.

Nielsen also said enterprise communities that spring up are very good about policing themselves, conducting themselves in a professional manner. This means organizations need not institute controls. That isn’t the case at ESPN, which this month instituted social network controls.

eWEEK polled other analysts from IDC and Gilbane Group to see what their client bases tell them about social software in the enterprise. In a survey IDC conducted earlier this year about social networking use in businesses, 51 percent of the respondents said they were using consumer platforms such as Facebook and MySpace, as well as paid enterprise tools, such as wikis and blogs.

While this may be on the low side (some respondents may fear reprisals from management), IDC analyst Carolyn Dangson told eWEEK that of this 51 percent, 34 percent were doing it on their own, without the blessing of the corporation. In other words, users are taking it upon themselves to start using such tools at the grassroots level, echoing what Nielsen found in its study.

“It’s absolutely bottom-up,” Dangson said. “These tools are brought in to plug in holes and make certain businesses processes more efficient and provide services the tools the companies themselves have invested in don’t provide.”

However, this adoption is happening at the department level, and not across the entire enterprise. She also said vendors are recognising this, which is why they’re offering free, 30-day trials of their products.

Gilbane’s Geoff Bock told eWEEK there is something going on in social software at work, but the industry is having a hard time putting its finger on it. Essentially, what we’re qualifying as use now is really experimentation to massage the information overload issue. Bock said:

“We’re all suffering from information overload, we are all looking for better ways to manage our attention and we are all interconnected with one another. This is changing the way we communicate with one another and the way we expect to do business with one another. This then changes the way groups of people can interact with one another. We’re still in the period of the innovators and the early adopters who are experimenting. It’s not clear what the home run is going to be.”

The enterprise has time to work this out. Indeed, Nielsen Norman Group estimates a timeline of three to five years for companies to successfully adopt and integrate social technologies into their intranets.

Readers can download the Nielsen report here, or just read the highlights from Nielsen in this blog post.

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