Is Social Software Relevant To Information Workers?

I'm not saying anything shocking when I say enterprise social software, has been a hot topic over the last five years. The set of technologies designed to flatten corporations have spawned dedicated blogs, press, and conferences. And our surveys of content and collaboration professionals show businesses are embracing these technologies: 42% of firms are making new investments in Enterprise 2.0 software, and 46% are investing in team workspaces (on which social technologies often ride into the enterprise). So, obviously we're over the hump and well into this new social era of business, right? Well...not so fast.

I'll go out on a limb here and say that businesses are not more social - at least, not in the broad-based fashion people envisioned when we first started talking about Enterprise 2.0 in the heady days of the mid-2000s. How could it be? According to our recent survey of 4,985 US information workers, 28% of the workforce uses a social technology. While you may be thinking to yourself this is a good start, allow me a moment to point out some key differences between Enterprise 2.0 users and the rest of the workforce:

  • They're your highest paid employees. Over half of this group earns more than $60k a year, compared to just 36% of non-users.
  • They're the most educated members of the workforce. Sixty-five percent of this group has completed at least a 4 year college degree compared to 55% of the rest of the workforce.
  • They're the leaders in your office. It's not surprising to see 49% of this group are managers are executives given management's enthusiasm about social technologies. Just 31% of non-users are in similar positions.

Given that these tools are more or less walled off  in the upper echelons of the US information workforce, it's hard to conclude that they're living up to their billing of providing equitable access to information and ideas across an organization. But, you could say it's a beach head; a natural place for social software to enter the business and spread in a (counterintuatively) top-down fashion. It's a good idea except for one hitch: Our data also shows that the heaviest users of collaboration technology value social software less than other collaboration tools. This suggests that if we look at what's probably going to spread fastest because the power collaboration tool users see value and push its use, it won't be the social tools that many of us thought would dominate in the enterprise at this point.

Now, I know this all sounds like gloom and doom. But I think there's actually a bright side here. I do think that social software has the power to transform how groups of people interact and work together. And I think there's an opportunity for content and collaboration pros to roll these tools out smartly to the parts of the workforce that will derive the most benefit from them immediately. But, in this isoltated fashion, does that mean that social software ultimately fulfills its promise of transforming entire business cultures and process, as Enterprise 2.0 evangelists suggest? Or is social software just a link in business collaboration's evolutionary chain?

At our upcoming Content and Collaboration Forum, my colleague Ted Schadler and I will be discussing how to, among other things, provide tools to keep the mobile workforce connected, engaged, and productive. Our data clearly shows that, for now, a one-size-fits-all approach won't work -- so where do we begin? And how does that play into the continuing evolution of businesses' collaboration strategies? Additionally, my colleague Rob Koplowitz will be discussing in his keynote address whether or not social technologies have been as successful in transforming business as we were promised. We hope to see you there for these thought-provoking conversations.


**Initial post incorrectly cited the number as 29% when it is in fact 28%.


In your second to last

In your second to last paragraph you write: "But, in this isoltated fashion, does that mean that social software ultimately fulfills its promise of transforming entire business cultures and process, as Enterprise 2.0 evangelists suggest? Or is social software just a link in business collaboration's evolutionary chain?"

I think you are right. Being stand alone, social software will not come to much. It is key that social becomes one of the tools/ways to collaborate. I believe that most collaboration spaces will become social (seeing that already). If social collaboration is brought into the work process it will start to catch on. Only then, one might see the cultural change we all talk/dream about.

Great data and thanks for

Great data and thanks for sharing.

The strata of users is not surprising. Factory, Data Processing and others are not using social software and that takes the average salaries higher up towards knowledge workers. i would not necessarily make the direct leap to any kind of class system.

Re: "But, in this isoltated fashion, does that mean that social software ultimately fulfills its promise of transforming entire business cultures and process, as Enterprise 2.0 evangelists suggest?"
- you mean some Enterprise 2.0 evangelists.

Something doesn't smell right...

Do you mean E20 users value social software [other than the suites they're using] less than the suites they're using or that the heaviest users value all social software [ including the suites they're using ] less than non users?

Option one suggests that buyers want what they bought to be the best. Option two suggests that the smartest, highest paid & most frequent users are continuing to use something that doesn't work (or work well).

Overall social software uptake in personal and business realms is staggering (see pew and hubspot and cisco research) so how does this square up?


Let's distinguish b/t users & buyers

Thanks for the reply, Billy. The point you're reacting to is from a survey of technology users (individuals who were screened for using computers at work, not their role in the decision-making process). When we ask individuals who are heavy users of collaboration technologies in general (using between 4 and 14 of the tools we survey about) how important it is IT provide them collaboration technologies and how important it is they are provided social technologies, they consistently state that collaboration technologies are more important than social tech.

The pattern persists when we isolate those people who are using the social technologies (the 29% we mention at the beginning of the post): They rate the importance of collaboration tools higher than social media.

As I pointed out in the post, we see a disconnect between the importance that businesses are placing on social software (as shown in their high investment rates) and how it's actually spread through organizations. I'm not going to attempt to compare the surveys you cite to ours (which have been consistent on the low rate of social software adoption among workers) because I'm not familiar with their sampling methodology or questionnaire design.

Social v Collab

Hey TJ,
thanks for the clarification!
This makes more sense now and I'll bet that it is outlined more in the report.

It would be interesting to see how collaborative tech qua collab tech stacks up against social tech qua collab tech in business. I suspect there's a fairly thick and blurry line between the two.

The challenge is cultural and defining business value

Thanks TJ. Great stuff. The connection between buying patterns (high) and adoption patterns (low) is the key. In my experience, when business value is clearly defined, users adopt. That can be a lot of work and challenge IT and the business to work together more closely than they are used to. It can also be a great experience and a lot of fun. Nothing like defining discrete business value to drive cultural change! It is worth noting that is a heck of a lot easier to make one purchase decision than it is to change to work habits of an entire (potentially very large) workforce so this disconnect between buying and adopting is expected.

The real question I'd like to throw out is whether 2.0 is transformational or evolutionary in business? If it's the latter, it could still be incredibly important (even the difference between survival and failure in a tough economy).

Yep. Registered users only

Yep. Registered users only confirms that your LDAP integration was a roaring success :)

in my view its more evolutionary if we employ a 'design around business value' approach. That mandates that we decisively look for areas where collaboration can actually enhance business outcomes. All that said, when we look back 5-10 years from now we will be patting ourselves for having lead a revolution, as the scars start to disappear.
Sameer (@sameerpatel)

Evolution can be darn helpful

With you Sameer (the evolution part, no comment on LDAP integration). Enhancing processes may well be evolutionary, but that first fish that crawled out on the land to grab a quick bite to eat deserved a pat on the back. Assuming some other fish had hands to pat him or her. ; )

Step by Step by Step

Evolutionary is how I would like to characterize the transformational change internally :-)

For most cases within the enterprise, the business value is enhanced not just by planting in yet another tool in the guise of socializing the enterprise, but rather by simply integrating existing apps, tools and social tools into a more simplified workflow that help in enhancing the business value. The integrations are definitely not a one off excercise that can transform the overall experience over a perioe of time. It would be ideally be an incremental evolutionary progress wherein Business value can be enhanced - Step by Step by Step

That seems to be the pattern

On board with what you're seeing Sam. Seems to be happening with most of our clients. The integrations will get easier as standards and dominant players emerge in the field and the evolution will accelerate. In the meantime, step by step by step in still an improvement and if you're doing it and your competition is not ...

Surprise and no surprise

Good post. I was a bit surprised when you cited figures of nearly 50% of companies "investing" in the E2.0, but then investing might be experimenting or limited deployments. If that is the case, I would think every company has someone "investing".

You key message is "we see a disconnect between the importance that businesses are placing on social software (as shown in their high investment rates) and how it's actually spread through organizations" and I completely agree. It is one thing to purchase social software, and quite another to get users to use it.

I am not surprised that adoption is much lower than purchase rates, because real adoption means a shift in the ways that people interact -- a change to the culture -- and organization culture change takes a long time. Patience is called for. This is a great post!

The number is actually north of 50%

Thanks for the comment, Keith. The number I cited in this post was of businesses making new investments. When you factor in those who have implemented something but making no upgrades or expansions, you get nearly 60% of North American and European firms with acknowledged social software deployments. The reason why I don't think this should be too shocking, though, is because the vendor landscape has changed to make "social" a part of pretty much everything. So, you have your social software vendors like Jive and Socialtext and Yammer, but then you have collaboration software vendors embedding social tools in their collaboration platforms (see IBM and Microsoft) and line of business application vendors creating social offerings that tie into their existing technologies (see and SAP). Some have sneeringly described this a "social washing," probably because the resulting offerings have not always been as, shall we say, elegant as the stuff the pure-plays produce.