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Social Tools at Work

January 5, 2012 - 2 Comments

Apparently “outside the box” topped a list of the worst offenders in corporate jargon for 2011. I expected that social would make the list until I realized that people are still struggling to apply it to business. It has yet to become a corporate jargon offender, let alone one of the worst.

Still, we have social media, social networks, social business, social advertising, social cats, social dogs, social goldfish. OK, perhaps I exaggerate. A little. It’s like Y2K all over again when we tacked an e- to the front of everything from mail and business on through the rest of the dictionary to say, “Look, it’s online now!”

Working for technology companies, I’ve often had the advantage (or disadvantage) of working with new tools as they came into being. Now, some of the so-called social media tools I started using in my personal time have become valuable business tools: Instant messaging is a good example.

I’m not surprised when I see articles attempting to explain the value of social tools in the workplace. I’d guess that to many, social media still sounds like a way to share cat videos.

The very term social has been folded, spindled, and tweaked beyond the limits of its definition. But although it has gained a colloquial reputation for being more recreational than professional, the common element of the definition always ties into community, society, groups, interaction — collaboration.

The blurring of the term unfortunately inhibits people from exploring new tools and business processes seriously. The whole concept of combining the terms enterprise and social in the same sentence seems not unlike any number of oxymorons. The proverbial water cooler was the space for social. Your desk was the place for work.

But consider a social experience as a collaborative experience, regardless of whether it’s work or play. Because when I’m in a social work experience — interacting as part of a group toward a common outcome — I’m collaborating.

The International Association of Business Communicators and Prescient Digital Media conducted the 2011 Social Intranet Survey to examine “social media use on corporate intranets and the magnitude, use, and popularity of social media by employees and executives.” In other words, the actual business use of social media.

Although the results show faster adoption than in previous years, social tools haven’t taken over the desktop. But of the companies surveyed, 61% have at least one internal social media tool for employees, usually blogs or instant messaging.

The study had companies indicate use or plans to use 15 tools according to a five-level scale:

  • enterprise use
  • some, limited enterprise use
  • not yet, but have plans
  • none, but considering options
  • no plans and no interest

Six tools rose to the top of the list with at least 50% of companies using them today: blogs, discussion forums, instant messaging, wikis, user comments, and RSS. Not surprising, the most widely used is instant messaging. (Admit it, those clever initialisms and emoticons didn’t creep into our typographic vocabularies on their own.)

At the low end of the spectrum, with 20% to 45% companies putting them on their “no plans” list were: mashups, social bookmarking, content ranking, photo sharing, podcasts, and microblogging (i.e. Twitter).

The teams most likely to use social tools within the organization? Communications, human resources, marketing, IT, and operations/production.

The rankings and data will shift over time as the use of social tools becomes more integrated into business processes. Other tools will continue to land in the “no plans” list due to the lack of applicability to most business tasks. Early adopters will bring new tools into the business environment. Some will stay, some will go.

Audio podcasts were the big deal just a few years ago. Now, video blogging has jumped ahead – it’s easy to do with built-in cameras and the visual component helps people retain information. It may be virtual eye contact, but it adds to the experience. But podcasts likely lead the way. Video just made it better.

Get past the name and many of the tools tagged as social can truly enhance collaboration. In some cases, companies are actually abandoning e-mail for instant messaging and collaborative workspaces. I know that I’d much rather type a quick IM than pick up my phone.

The tools we use are evolving and the way we work evolves with them. It’s hard to imagine walking downstairs to the mailroom to pick up my mail every afternoon, then getting a paper cut putting my response in an envelope. But that’s what we did. Now the same exchange can take less than a day over e-mail or maybe five minutes over instant messaging.

Social tools encourage interaction. Instead of one-to-one communication or meetings about meetings to get ready for meetings, we can use web conferencing, collaborative workspaces, discussion forums, group chats, and all sorts of other ways to work together.

Take a look at your to-do list. How many things on it require interaction with other people? Are you using the best tools available to communicate, share, work with those people? Maybe, just maybe, there’s room for improvement.

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  1. I think the term ‘think outside the box’ is used by managers who have no clue how to actually solve a problem.

  2. Excellent insight!