Social Network Adoption Races Ahead

Awareness, Inc., which has been in the social media software market for several years, has just come out with a new research report on enterprise adoption of Web 2.0. There are some interesting findings that I wanted to share with you. You can download the entire report after filling out a short registration form.

My basic take-away is that social media tools are ripping through the enterprise with amazing speed. Whether used internally, externally with open enrollment or externally with invitation-only enrollment, social networks are proliferating as business tools. Some highlights:

  • The number of organizations that allow employees to use social networks for business purposes has increased dramatically to 69% in 2008 from 37% last year;
  • More than six in 10 companies are using social media to build and promote their brands, improve communication and increase consumer engagement;
  • There has been a fivefold increase in the percentage of employees who use popular social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn for business purposes, from 15% in 2007 to 75% this year;
  • While only a tiny percentage of organizations are currently using internal communities, one in three plans to use them in the future;
  • A quarter of respondents say their companies are planning to deploy external-facing communities, which is double last year’s total;
  • Some 37% of organizations plan to focus communities on specialty areas where they can provide focused business value;
  • More than 40% of respondents report using one or more of the following tools: user groups, tags, communities, blogs, social networking and videos;
  • The most popular internal tools are social networks, blogs and wikis, with adoption rates of between 50% and 55%;
  • Seven in 10 respondents say their companies plan to deploy external blogs.
One of the most notable trends this research reveals is the rapid acceptance of social networking not only for marketing and customer support, but also for employee communications. When you consider that Facebook was barely known outside of the academic realm just two years ago, the acceptance of this technology for internal knowledge management is remarkable.

I’m also intrigued by the findings that seven in 10 businesses allow employees to use social media during business hours. This is a big change in corporate attitude. In the first couple of years of social media, businesses moved slowly to permit employees to speak outside the company walls. There were fears about people revealing company secrets or saying inappropriate things in public forums. Those fears appear to have largely melted away.

The lack of horror stories combined with the powerful utility of features like LinkedIn’s Answers forum are clearly overwhelming these reservations. It turns out that when you give people the freedom to speak on behalf of the company and combine that freedom with clear guidelines about what’s appropriate to say, the vast majority do the right thing.

This is inspiring and affirming. It may be an unanticipated benefit of social media acceptance, but it is a very welcome one.

Caveats: Any research conducted over the Internet needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The Awareness survey accumulated responses from 160 people, of whom 27.5% were from large companies and 40% were at a management level. Awareness says statistical accuracy is +/- 7%. Awareness also has a vested interest in promoting acceptance of social networks. However, the company used an independent research partner, Equation Research, to conduct the survey and I don’t think it has any incentive to fudge the results.

Innovation Flourishes When You Give Up Control

I recently attended a fascinating presentation by George Faulkner, Advanced Communications Professional at IBM and de facto leader of the company’s internal podcasting initiative. George Faulkner, IBMPodcasting has succeeded within IBM largely because the workforce is so distributed; some 40% of IBM’s 400,000 employees work primarily outside of an office. The initiative was launched much more recently than the company’s blogging campaign, but it has raced ahead of blogs in popularity. Podcasts are now second only to wikis as a tool for internal communications.

IBM’s internal podcast program has more than 100,000 unique members and 12,000 files. The medium’s popularity has grown despite some rather onerous regulatory requirements. For example, IBM must transcribe the contents of any executive interview. No matter: Thanks to individual initiative and a corporate hands-off policy, it’s the employees who are spreading the good word.

One of the first successful podcasts at IBM had no ROI at all. It was a battle of the bands, featuring groups composed of IBM employees. The show ran for 35 weeks and IBMers lobbied for an opportunity to be featured. “That was the moment I realized this wasn’t about knowledge-sharing; it was about community-building,” said Faulkner, who produced the program.

IBM’s story has some important insights about how new technology can be effectively spread throughout an organization. In this case, the company never demanded that its employees use podcasting. Instead, officials sanctioned the project and simply allowed anyone who was interested to start playing.

It’s the “playing” part of the equation that’s so important. Many of the most productive technology innovations of the last 20 years have come about because business professionals were allowed to experiment, even if their activities didn’t have any apparent business benefit. The popularity of the Internet itself came about in large part because executives saw their kids playing with AOL and recognized applications to the business.

This phenomenon is happening right now with social media inside many organizations. Employees use the tools to share their individual interests and areas of expertise. Corporate marketers watch and cherry-pick the best ideas to promote to the outside world. Once executives give up on the idea that they have the monopoly on innovation, innovation truly flourishes. That’s when we find the business value.

Faulkner cited the example of one executive who used to hold a weekly conference call with 500 people spread across the globe. A live call of that scale is simply impractical, and no-shows were a problem. So the exec switched from a phone conference to a weekly podcast. The move doubled listenership. Now road warriors and people in distant time zones can tune in at their leisure.

IBM now routinely podcasts news for investors and periodically uses the medium to showcase customers and executive perspectives on developing trends. Many of the sessions from the 2007 Lotusphere conference are available as podcasts.

For businesses that are still treading carefully with social media, these internal experiments can be a great way to get the ball rolling.

Click here to read George Faulkner’s prepared remarks.