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10 Obstacles to Social Collaboration Success

Fortunately, social collaboration failures don't tend to be big, expensive doom-the-company-style failures. Still, a social collaboration system that doesn't accomplish anything is a waste of time. Still, by avoiding or addressing a few simple obstacles, there's no reason why your social collaboration efforts should fail, at all.

Overcome a commanding-and-controlling culture

"Will your employees use social media to plot against you? Why foster the illusion of democracy if that's not the way you run the company?" Sure that's an extreme picture, but many moderately conservative organizations will think twice — and maybe rightly so — about whether an internal social network makes sense for their corporate culture.

Ultimately, if senior leaders can't be persuaded to loosen the corporate necktie one notch, your organization may not be ready for social collaboration.

Fend off negative connotations

The phrase "Facebook inside our company" works magic for some people. Facebook has other connotations, however. If management hears Facebook but thinks frivolous, time-wasting tool people will use to share jokes and baby photos, then will only make it more difficult to sell a social collaboration concept internally.

Instead try making a comparison to LinkedIn. Better yet, transition as quickly as possible to showing social collaboration in the context of work. You will probably find yourself falling back on occasional comparisons to how something works on Facebook or Twitter, but be sure to explain how it is used productively for business.

If you think alternate terminology will help, try "networked business" as an alternative to social business. Some consultants talk about "emergent collaboration," where "emergent" means the collaboration emerges naturally from a network of people who share a common goal rather than being imposed by a top-down structure. Instead of saying that you're trying to make the organization more social, you can talk about making it more agile and adaptable — which are goals of social collaboration.

Avoid fragmentation

The explosion of social software tools is a source of great innovation, but creates a lot of confusion. Organizations can wind up with several enterprise social networks used by different teams or departments, or for different purposes. This fragmented social environment might be worse than none at all.

Employees and teams may have legitimate reasons for wanting to use a variety of tools for different purposes, but you should try to help them choose wisely and seek opportunities for integration.

Find the resources for integration

Integration is a goal that is often never quite achieved. For every application, there is a threshold of "good enough" integration to make the system usable.

The social collaboration vendors can deliver all the application interfaces imaginable, but achieving the necessary integrations still requires IT time and effort. If an enterprise social network launches with significant integration gaps (for example, if the social collaboration network's search function fails to present search results from all content repositories) employees come away unimpressed.

Generate buzz

Users will find a collaboration network compelling if their friends and co-workers are active on it, contributing content and answering each other's questions. More often, early users of the collaboration network find it a ghost town: devoid of participants and content. It's the empty bar problem — no one wants to hang out where there's nothing going on.

This is one reason why it's often a bad idea to deploy an enterprise social network company-wide across a large organization. Instead, start with a smaller group of people — perhaps divided by geography but united around some corporate function or professional interest — and let them prove the value of social collaboration. After you have a good story to tell, it will be easier to get others to join in.

Compete with free public social networks

Employees will inevitably compare their experience on an enterprise social network with that of consumer sites like Facebook. That can be a problem if the enterprise experience suffers by comparison by being awkward to navigate, frustrating to use, or missing important features.

Also, if there is too much bureaucracy and administrative overhead associated with the corporate social environment, some project teams might find it easier to collaborate through a Facebook group or a freemium product like Yammer or Teambox.

Is that a bad thing? It certainly can be if sensitive information is being shared through a tool that doesn't meet corporate security and compliance requirements (a Facebook Group could be fine for organizing a holiday party but not a merger).

If your employees are already using something like Yammer and it's working, the open-minded organization might at least consider officially sanctioning it. Now that Yammer is owned by Microsoft and will be offering increased integration with SharePoint, the cloud service is gaining credibility in the enterprise. However, most organizations would prefer to make a deliberate choice of collaboration network rather than blessing the work of renegades.

Comply with industry regulations

Regulated industries (such as financial services and healthcare) must pay particular attention to whether an enterprise social network meets compliance requirements (like protecting account numbers and patient information). These are not insurmountable obstacles, but they can slow things down. Regulations may dictate the choice of an on-premises solution over a cloud service, for example.

Attracting participants

Most organizations that adopt internal social software promote its use but do not make it mandatory. Voluntary adoption is the right approach. If social software really is so wonderful, employees ought to gravitate to it naturally, as something that makes their lives easier. If the adoption isn't happening, maybe it's the social network that needs to change to accommodate employee behavior rather than the other way around.

If you're having trouble attracting participants, retrace your steps and look for things you can improve about how the software is used and how online communities are forming. Identify advocates who are using social collaboration effectively and ask them to spread the word about its potential. Think through anything you can do to remove procedural or technical roadblocks to participation and community formation.

Overcome past failures with groupware, knowledge management

You've heard all these promises before: The vision of enterprise social networking sounds a lot like the benefits that were supposed to be delivered by previous generations of workflow- and knowledge-management products.

For social software to be successful, it has to do a better job of living up to its own hype. Set high standards for the software of your choice, while setting equally high standards for your organization to demonstrate how social collaboration can make a difference.

Overcome the compulsion to fall back on e-mail

In principle, any internal message that will go to more than a couple of participants — or be helpful to more than one person — belongs on the social collaboration network, not in e-mail. But old habits die hard, and for many people e-mail is the tool they will use. Defaulting to e-mail when the social collaboration network is the more useful tool may be like using a screwdriver to pound in a nail, but it's the way many people work.

There is no magic solution. But if employees have enough positive experiences with social collaboration, they should start to form new habits.

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