Is it really impossible to have only one social network in the workplace ?

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Summary : even if implementing a single platform has a lot of good sides and is the best way to do things, it’s not the easiest one. As a matter of fact, businesses, when they decide to take the leadership, come years after many local initiatives have started and, moreover, it’s sometimes politically impossible to make previous programs converge without a minimum of courage…what looks like the situation we have already know with intranets and from which no lesson has been learned. But a compromise seems possible provided interoperability between platforms improves.

That’s a question that’s continuously coming back even if we think we already came through it the month before. Should businesses focus on implementing a signe social networking platform or should they accept to have many ones co-existing in the workplace ? Asked this way this question seems irrelevant since so many arguments speak for having a single a single platform. But that’s a simplistic way of considering a problem that has two sides : should businesses do have a single platform, and can they do ?

Should businesses have a single platform ?

This point is all about rationality. The advantages of such an approach are numerous :

• easier to reach a critical mass

• prevent social silos

• better management of employee’s attentions because they don’t have to juggle with many tools

• easier adoption because when one person has to play with many platforms they often don’t make a decision a reject all of them

• better project management : costs of tools, training etc… are lower when the business focus on a single tool.

But there are downsides :

– easier to start small, locally

– the risk of a platform that does everything is that it may do nothing specially well. Looking for the lowest common denominator of all needs sometimes makes that no need is satisfied in the end.

These downsides are real and we can’t overlook them. Let’s say that even if the local side of a project matters a lot, it’s important to understand that having a global project does not prevent local adoption plans. In fact, working globally and locally at the same time often leads to success. And for what’s about the risk of a platform doing so many things that it does not do anything right, it’s important to make sure that the chosen tool :

– makes a large scope of usage possible, from the most basic to the most advanced ones.

– can be improved by custom developments

-..I keep this third point for later…

Can businesses have a single platform ?

We all know that’s there’s often a big gap between what should be done and what can be done. When one can’t get what he loves he’d better learn to love what he gets. The question of being able to focus on a single platform is, in my opinion, much more important than knowing whether it’s the best solution or not. That’s often the point that makes a global strategy fail, not always for the most obvious reasons.

Beyond the need for supporting very specific usages that are seldom addressed by non-specialized platforms, the main concern is human…rather say political and diplomatic.

Compared to many tools that have been implemented in the past, there’s something new with social networks : the local levels (business unit, department, line of business, team) has often been faster than the corporate structure to experiment things. Many reasons to that : tools that are easier to install on a local infrastructure, Saas offers that have been the proper of pure players for a long time when legacy vendors were not ready to change their models. The consequence is that, when businesses to have a global approach, they face tens or even hundred of local projects that are up and running, more or less healthy, but which are already in the workplace, benefit from their precedence and have lots of active users that give them more legitimacy than the newly launched corporate project has.

That’s obvious that making users that already have their habits with a tool move to another is not easy. At least they may be offered a better user experience (ergonomics, integration with other tools) to avoid a deceptive experience. Being able to bring their contents on the new platform so they won’t have the impression they spent a lot of time and energy for nothing is also important.

But these local initiatives also have leaders. Even if it’s possible to make users move seamlessly from a platform to another, there’s still a problem left, related to ego, internal politics, internal squabbles and, shortly put, personal pride. That’s a revival of what we already experienced with intranets years ago. At this time, having one’s own intranet was a proof of power. I have my intranet so I exist. Bottom line, we saw intranets flourishing all around the workplace. Some organizations had to deal with thousands, even tens of thousands ones. Some were made of only one or two pages in html and never being updated but it was impossible to do anything because doing so was like striking a blow at the image and power of the people who were leading them, who initiated them. We all see the result today : because nothing was done in the early days, when it was still possible to do something, businesses are now paying the high price of the chaos caused by a total lack of governance in the early noughties and lack of courage in the following years. A very costly and unproductive situation that’s still difficult to deal with 15 years after.

What happened with intranets is about to happen again with social platforms. So the lesson was not learned.

When I hear that “there’s too many existing platforms in our company, it’s impossible to male them converge”, the argument is not related to functionalities or user needs but to diplomacy. So what happened with intranets will happen with social platforms too: we’ll have to wait until the overdose, until the moment when we’ll be forced to admit that users and usages fragmentation made them underutilized, that we can’t be happy anymore with micro-benefits, even that the situation has become unproductive to rationalize things.

But there are organizations that dared tackling their “intra-shambles”. Some in the middle of the noughtlies, like IBM, to move from tens of thousands intranets to a single one. Many others have been doing the same in the last years. That has never been easy, lots of discussions and negotiations were needed, convergence took 2, 3 years or even more but the goal was clear : there’s no room for more than one intranet in the organization. Period. Everything is done in ordrer to make the change as seamless as possible but, in the end, there’s a deadline after which all dissident platforms will be shut off. One more evidence that “we can’t” often means “we don’t dare”.

Interoperability to avoid the “all or nothing” situation ?

Are we in a “all or nothing” logic ? A single platform for those who made the right decisions when it was still time or had the courage to clean their intranet up after, and a fragmented workplace for others ? Not a long time ago I would have answered “yes”. But things are improving in a very interesting way. That’s the point I mentioned above.

Rather than a single platform I would say a flagship. But the fragmentation of the social software landscape is a reality many organizations have to face. More, some platforms meet very specific needs and are barely replaceable by a non specialized one ‘(or at a customization cost that makes it unrealistic. We can imagine a dominant platform surrounded by secondary ones. The existence of secondary platforms should remain an exception but can be tolerated provided they meet some requirements that make them unsubstitutable. In such a case, a growing trend will be helpful : interoperability between platforms, which is becoming a major concern for lots of vendors and will, in my opinion, a major matter in a close future. Interoperability will help to find a pragmatic way to avoid a “all or nothing” situation.

But making several dominant platform or many micro platforms without coherence or integration does not seem to be a sustainable way.

So I don’t see the social fleet having more than one flagship. But it’s possible to imagine this flagship surrounded by a fleet of small ships…provided all the vessels are able to communicate and coordinate.