Underwhelming Adoption of Social Technologies in the Enterprise

Every other food item at the grocery store seemingly has packaging boasting that it’s “all natural.” Because companies don’t have to meet specific criteria to use this designation, it’s being slapped on just about everything.

Every other food item at the grocery store seemingly has packaging boasting that it’s “all natural.” Because companies don’t have to meet specific criteria to use this designation, it’s being slapped on just about everything. It’s so prevalent — and some would say misleading — that consumers are beginning to file lawsuits that claim the wording is deceptive.


But does it really increase sales? I suspect there is no proof it does. But with no evidence that it hurts sales, many companies have decided to jump on the “all natural” bandwagon anyway.


I can’t help but wonder: Are technology vendors using “social” to sell software in much the same way other companies are using “all natural” to sell cereal?


Like many technology trade publications, we’ve published quite a few stories about social technologies over the past few years. Adding social elements to enterprise applications like business process management, CRM and business intelligence will boost user adoption rates and make it easier to derive benefits from software investments, vendors and analysts tell us. And it does make sense, so we go ahead and write about it.


Yet the folks purchasing software largely haven’t seemed as excited about social as the vendors and analysts. For every promising story about enterprise adoption of social software, like the American Hospital Association’s initiative to make its intranet a hub of collaborative activity, there’s a story about how lots of business people are sticking to email as their de facto collaboration tool.


A new study from Forrester Research shows just how anemic the enterprise response to social technologies has been. A recent post at GigaOM cites this bit from the report:

… Despite significant and ongoing investment in enterprise social technologies, their roughly seven-year lifespan within enterprises has yielded a maximum of 12 percent adoption within the overall workforce. This market has failed to displace traditional collaboration technologies like email as a preferred way to communicate at work.

The post doesn’t share any insights from the report as to why adoption has been so lackluster. But IT Business Edge’s Carl Weinschenk gleaned some interesting feedback from Mark Tonsetic, practice manager in the Corporate Executive Board’s IT Practice, in their recent interview.  As he told Carl, companies largely haven’t achieved the adoption levels they want with tools like internal social networks, wikis and blogs.


They are achieving more success with social tools that don’t require heavy contributions from users and fit better into existing workflows. Tonsetic’s examples were synchronous group document-creation tools such SharePoint and location-awareness technologies. He said:

… They don’t require the user to do something outside of their normal workflow or on top of what they already do in the course of a normal day. Take mobility solutions. If you are providing me a wider range of capacities to do the things I need to do in the course of my normal workflow and are providing it in a mobile environment, it will naturally see more adoption. This is opposed to technologies — not to say they are not valuable – [that require the user to do things differently]. For these to be adopted, organizations have to over-invest in change management. They have to double down or triple down on change management to get these tools to take hold. If they are not willing to make that commitment, they are better off using tools that accelerate workflow. …

I don’t doubt this is true. Just a few weeks ago, I shared the experiences of a social practitioner who worked for Intel who found that making collaboration central to workflow was her biggest challenge.


Companies certainly shouldn’t expect overnight success. The Corporate Executive Board found that, on average, it takes one to two years past initial deployment for companies to reach their target adoption rates for social technologies. In addition to the importance of change management, which is stressed in his quote above, Tonsetic offered some additional advice that should help boost enterprise adoption of social technologies:

  • Examine existing workflows to determine where the addition of social tools makes the most sense. Said Tonsetic: “When an individual and teams come in to do work, especially unstructured work, there is workflow that you have to understand in teams and across teams. This can give you the best clues on which processes can be accelerated, which are alien to that workflow and require significant investment in change management for the tools to be leveraged effectively.”
  • Sell the benefits to users. He said: “[IT departments] should think like marketers who may be marketing a technology solution to a customer. How are they communicating the benefits, and to whom? Just because technology may exist [in the consumer space], the companies should not presume that people can automatically figure out how to use it, and how to use it in a work environment. There is an educational element.”
  • Create business-friendly metrics to illustrate the value of social technologies. Explained Tonsetic: “It is not enough to say that teams can work better or save an hour here or there. To really get their attention, you have got to be able to demonstrate how it will lead to better metrics for the function being considered.” For instance, he suggested return on sales expense as a logical metric for the sales and marketing function.