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5 reasons why employee social networking will fail at work

Yes, I know that Facebook has 1.3 billion users. Yes, I see people on social media everywhere I look – on the trains, at traffic lights and when at work. Personally I spend more time than I should on LinkedIn and Facebook, much to chagrin of my family. Yes I am believer a believer of social networking.

An easy assumption to make in light of these success stories, is that using social networking at work, will work. Certainly this is what social networking technology vendors will have you believe from their marketing efforts. Case studies of success of social business networking at organisations such as IBM and Deloitte are compelling.

However beyond these few but well publicised success stories, I have struggled to hear widespread success of social business initiatives. Five reasons for this healthy skepticism are:

1. The ingredients for successful social networking go against the grain of traditional management structures.

Working at IBM and Google is very different from working at, let us say a bank or a mining company. People and their intellectual outputs are the lifeline of knowledge businesses (technology and professional services). The culture, processes and the reward systems reflect this and tend to be more “employee centric”, open and based on shorter power distance (Geert Hofstede’s model).

Organisations in more traditional industries tend to less open and more hierarchical. They are characterized by the need to manage risk and the predominance of top down communication. Social networking which is based on more democratic principles struggles to establish itself and grow in this environment. Many social networking initiatives in such organisations begin with a flourish and usually end up being another channel for top down communication with very little participation from the employees.

Another barrier to social networking in organisations is the low tolerance for risk. While social media in general tends to be self-regulating, the possibility of a post being inappropriate is real and too risky for many organisations. Some organisations approve comments before they can be published to remove the risk but it takes way the spontaneity and authenticity of the participation. I hasten to clarify the difference between the approval and moderation. Moderation adds value to the discussion and increases the rate and quality of participation

2. The employment social contract has changed

In world of increasing retrenchments and outsourcing, the message sent to employees is “fend for yourself”. Employees have less motivation to contribute to the success to the organisation beyond what is mandatory or what is incentivised. The success of social networking depends on employees taking the time to participate and contribute their insights, knowledge and expertise without any extrinsic rewards. Contributors to wikipedia or don’t have any monetary incentives but are generous with their participation/ When it comes to contributing to social networks at work, , the state of mind is likely to switch to a “mercenary” or “what’s it in for me” mode.

3. Underestimating ingredients for success

Many organisations see the deployment of technology to enable social networking as the “silver bullet” and the “end game”. Some of this misconception is created by technology vendors but mostly it is due to organisations failing to understand that selecting and deploying technology to enable social networking is probably the easiest part of the process. One thing makes social networking a different beast – it is not mandatory for employees to participate but its success entirely depends on their participation.

Lack of “business purpose” is another common reason for failure. Many social business networking initiatives are commenced for the sake of trying “social media”. Another grossly underestimated aspect is the effort and skill required to nurture and sustain a community. Initially communities may need a dedicated community manager or a moderator (part time or full time) who provides the necessary energy and structure in the forming stage. This is rarely catered for.

4. Where is the time?

Ok let me ask you a question. In between your growing workload and the need to maintain work life balance do you have time to participate in social business networking ? Would you rather spend time on Facebook with your social community (friends and family) in an environment you can express yourself with very few rules or would you sacrifice some of that time to participate in social networking at work. For many employees the choice is not very difficult.The acceleration of pace of work compounded by information overload means that employees have very little down time to participate in “non-essential” work activities and social business networking.

5. The social networking backlash has begun

Some of the shine is coming off social networking. Increasing commercialisation of social media, need for a more balanced “real life” and concerns for privacy is stemming the growth of social networking the organisation. (Read The Social Media Backlash is Here)

In conclusion, social networking is unlike anything organisations have experienced. It is a double edge sword. If you can make it work it produces results like nothing else can by harnessing knowledge and insights of your employees. If you can’t it will die a slow death or may even be counter-productive.

When you commence on the social business networking journey, go there with your eyes open and your expectations tempered. Be prepared for that 99% perspiration.