Jakob Nielsen on real-world 'Enterprise 2.0'

After the sour taste of the McAfee farrago, it’s been a real pleasure to come across some solid fact and solid sense on ‘Enterprise 2.0′, from renowned usability expert Jakob Nielsen. (Thanks to Oscar Berg and others for the link.)

Nielsen’s ‘Alertbox’ post on ‘Social Networking on Intranets‘ summarises his team’s extensive research on how so-called ‘social software’ is actually applied within real-world enterprises. Perhaps the most important point that comes out of that research is that McAfee’s definition of ‘Enterprise 2.0′ is either flat-out wrong, or too misleading to be usable in practice. McAfee, and, of course, all the vendors on McAfee’s ‘social software’ bandwagon, assert that the tools should be the centre of all attention; but as Nielsen demonstrates, the tools are actually almost peripheral [emphasis as in the original post]:

People instinctively latch onto specifics to illustrate broad concepts. With Web 2.0 ['Enterprise 2.0' in this context], the specifics are the tools. … But in truth, social software isn’t really about the tools. It’s about what the tools let users do and the business problems the tools address.

A uniform finding across all of our case studies is that organizations are successful with social media and collaboration technologies only when the tools are designed to solve an identified business need. … Although picking the tool to support the need sounds obvious, it runs contrary to the technology fetishism that characterizes much talk about the latest Internet fads.

So, rather than saying: “[tool] X is hot on the Web, let’s get it on the intranet,” say: “We need to accomplish Y; can X help us?”

In other words, the focus must always be on the business needs and the human issues – not on the tools. (Hence the importance of business-architecture and a true ‘architecture of the enterprise’, to identify business needs and existing business capabilities.) And Nielsen also warns that:

An old lesson that holds true with social software is that a bunch of stand-alone tools will provide a disconnected user experience, causing employees to waste inordinate amounts of time moving between environments. For more than a decade, we’ve talked about the need for a unified intranet user experience, consistent design, and features organized around humans rather than technology. All still true.

The other key issue is communication within the enterprise, in the broadest sense of both those terms [again, emphasis as in the original]:

Widespread use of internal social media breaks down communication barriers. That sounds good, but it can threaten people accustomed to having a monopoly on information and communication. Ironically, corporate communications departments sometimes resist the move to broader communication. They’re better served, however, in finding ways to increase the value of new media rather than in trying to suppress it.

Corporate communications must adapt to social media’s real-time culture and become much more proactive than in the past. Procedures that required days or weeks for approvals need dramatic streamlining, or the story will run away on its own. Yet again, business and organizational change is what it’s about, not just the “2.0″ tools themselves.

Nielsen’s research also indicates that behind communication – or lack of it – lies corporate culture, hence a few interesting warnings about the dangers of ‘control’:

Before implementing intranet collaboration tools, you must consider company culture. If people are strongly committed to the “knowledge is power” tenet and don’t want to share, then sharing technologies will obviously fail.

It can be unnerving for traditionalist executives to see employees freely discussing company strategies. But loosening control of information on the intranet is a way to control a much bigger risk: that employees will spill the beans on Internet-wide social media. When people have internal media at their disposal, they’ll post their questions and comments there, as opposed to going outside.

And finally, a reminder that, perhaps unlike what happens on the Internet, changes in the corporation must be allowed to take their own time:

When you consider that successful adaptation of Enterprise 2.0 tools requires the organization to change its ways, it becomes clear why these projects don’t happen overnight. Yes, pilot implementations can go live in a matter of days, but the political and cultural changes needed for useful and widespread use take longer.

Although there’s no single answer, across our case studies, 3–5 years seems to be a common timeline for social intranet projects. This is a good time to remind you of the French general: when told that it would take a hundred years for newly planted trees to grow big, he said, “better get started now.”

If you want to know more about how ‘social software’ really works in a real-world context, go read the whole post: very strongly recommended.

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