Do organizations have anything to learn from Foursquare ?

Every year (if not every half-year) a new service becomes the main topic of conversation on the web. The buzz comes, of course, at a so early stage that’s it’s impossible to guess at this time how perenial the success will be and if the service will be able to find a sustainable business model, but this does not prevent experts to imagine it as a pillar of new usages on the intranet that will, at last, make enterprise 2.0 mainstream in the workplace.

In these early months of 2010 the pretended “next big thing” is called Foursquare and many things have already been writen here and  there about its future brilliant success in the workplace. Let me also mention Gowalla, that’s more recent but has many interesting features and Whrrl that is not “officially” working in France at this time.

So, is it one more craze or the future next big thing ?

What’s that ?

To keep it simple, let’s say these services allow you to “localize” where you are to tell your network “I’m there” or tells any of your contact going something “x… whas here and he even let a tip/recommandation about the place”. You can tell me that it may quickuly become boring and even pointless. That’s why some funny things have been added to keep the interest up.

The person with the most “check-ins” in a given place becomes the “mayor” of this place. This is an honorific title but some businesses already try to make things to pay more attention to the customer who owns the mayorship of their place. People may also win “badges” when they accomplish things like cumulating x check-ins, x airports, 3 Apple Stores….there is no limit to what can be invented to create new badges…

Everything is, of course, opt-in : one share only what he wants with whom he wants.

What benefits for users ? ?

Here things get more complicated. It stimulates a kind of funny competition within one’s network, most of all when these people do a little bit more than home-transportation-work every day. It’s always funny to go to a new place and to know that a friend of yours was theis months before and let a message about things to do, to see, specials if it’s a retaurant….

Now let’s be honnest and pragmatic. Except this funny competition side (I sometimes like these kind of pointless games), the vague feeling of being closer to other since we can know who is where, who’s around…I can’t find any tangible benefit at this time. Maybe I once appreciated a “since you are there, xxxx recommands such restaurant that’s one block away” but nothing more. Humm..I was forgetting one point : when I’m at a conference abroad it’s always useful to know who is where, attending such track in such room, is at the airport, is at such restaurant to be able to micro-organize all together without spending our time calling each other on the phone.

I’m afraid that’s all.

We used to live very well without that in the past. Let’s also admit we can say the same about mobile phone…

Let’s admit that it does not look that a business killer-app. But is there a part of this new paradigm that may bring any benefit in a business context ?

Badges? Why not !

With the emergence of new collaborative practices, new recognition systems are needed that should not be only financial. Knowing we’re also looking what to leverage to engage employees in these new practiced, the badge systems may make sense. Let’s be clear : I’m only talking about the award system, without any localization.

Being awarded the “people who help colleagues in need”, “xxxx expert”, “always available guy to help new employees” badge may be motivating for some. Businesses have to be creative to define the right awards and what’s needed to get them.

Can it work everwhere ? Obviously not and, most of all, not right now. Some businesses are ready to let things go and play this kind of funny games, but many others don’t want recognition and awards to be debased and consider that anything fun does not have its place in the workplace. So each business has to define its levers according to their potential but also to what’s acceptable in a given cultural context.

What’s about localization in the workplace ?

Playing the localization game with friends, virtually bumping into each other with a 2 month delay in a restaurant or a museum thousands of kilometers away from home, becoming the mayor of a monument, unlocking badges is very funny, sometimes useful. But is it useful, even desirable in the workplace ?

We are talking about deliberate actions from employees who could say if they want ‘I’m there”. It must not be mistaken with permanent localization systems used in some businesses for defined purposes (vehicle tracking, route optimizating and…less respectable purposes) that are very regulated by our local law.

At first sight I can’t see any interest for sedentary people. Maybe some want to become mayor of a meeting room or of an elevator…but, honnestly, there’s not much value in this.

I can guess some possibilities have to be explored for travelling employees. But since the experience of a place matters more than the person itself, finding senseful purposes won’t be that easy. “Having visited xxxx subsidiaries”, “Being the one who visit such customer the more often” ?

For airlines crew ? Why not. In another industry a friend of mind told me that it often happens that hundered of employees of his company are in the same foreign city at the same moment wihout knowing who where the others and where they were. It may make sense in this context but, in my opinion, they rather need a Dopplr-like.

Maybe for very specific needs ? To onboard new hires, maybe a game that will make them discover the building ? “You have a week to visit the documentation center, the canteen, the parking lot…”.

As we can see there are many leads but none is really strategic nor serious at this time. If you have any idea, feel free to comment !

I think interesting things can be made with very specific use cases but not in a near future except in very specific cae within organizations that have a rather innovative HR department.

The upsides ? It’s risk free !

One of the posts I mention above says dit business uses have to be found and that risk has to be managed : administrator should decide who can localize or not. Seen from my french window this is not an issue at all.

First, have a look at this report sponsored by Newsgator about privacy issues in enterprise 2.0 adoption in the EU.

This is a real issue. I’m not only talking about legal issues that seem to be much more restricting here than overseas, I’m talking about protecting the company IP, I’m talking about individual’s concerns about personal datas which are considered, here, not as “simple datas” but as a part of people’s identity thant can’t be given up. And the issue is much broader than many think ;

– I won’t make a brief about personal datas that an enterprise can or cannot publish on its intranet without getting the authorization of each employee or what employees can / can’t publish the one about the other….an endless inventory.

– even when law is respected, employees define themselves their acceptable level of exposure. Sharing one’s opinion is often seen as a risk. If others broadcast one’s opinion (“Mr so-and-so said it to me and that’s a great idea) is seen as an invasion of privacy. What I do, what I did, my past, my experience, my contacts are personal datas. Sharing it deliberately is seen as a risk, seeing it shared by people who can access it strikes a blow at privacy.

In other words the risk of seing deviant used of such tools in the workplace is non-existant for the reason that, even if localization happens on an opt-in basis, people will see at the ultimate level of privacy violation (even in a business context) and I’m sure that the existence of the tool itself, even unused, will be seen as a major threat by many employees, unions and many other players. So when a tool is not used, there are few chances to see it used in a bad way.


There’s a potential that has still to be discovered, that’s sure. Without localization, I’m sure that the badge system may be used for many things. As for systems relying on deliberate localization I doubt they will gain traction here on a short or middle term. First, because of a value proposal that is not clear at all, second for cultural reasons that won’t disappear that fast.

So, specific use cases will surely emerge on specific and limited ranges. As for massive adoption I don’t think, even one second, that it will happen in the next 5 years…if it ever happens.

Meanwhile, I’d like to get the opinion from HR people about that. Risk ? Opportunities ? Pointless ? And what about business managers ?

PS : a few days after I wrote this post, I saw this update from one of my contacts on Twitter : “Given the number of iPhone users at my company, I’m  evaluating using foursquare to replace our Time Attendance System 😉 “. Of course it was a joke. But who knows if one day….

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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