The implementation of wikis, blogs and other kinds of enterprise social software, can provide an excellent infrastructure for the informal interactions that underpin a high-performance workplace (discovering, innovating, collaborating, leading and learning). Wikis and blogs offer a conversational environment that encourages unplanned contact and interaction. Both applications allow for quick and easy creation of rich, hyperlinked web content. Both encourage feedback and comments. Blogs are more appropriate for the dissemination and discussion of opinions and ideas from a personal perspective, while wikis are appropriate for the creation of content by a group of people — particularly if the content, the group and the creation process are open-ended.
Open access, however, has risks as well as rewards. Any discussion about the introduction of social software in business environments often raises fears about loss of control over content and people, privacy issues and potential culture clashes between informal and top-down decision-makers. Some of these fears are legitimate, while others are exaggerated. What can go wrong is the misuse of the technology, especially where cultural norms and social control regarding open conversations have not yet been established. Social software can amplify negativity and sloppy thinking just as efficiently as it can amplify creativity and innovation. There is no way to eliminate the risk – the challenge is to identify and mitigate it.
Loss of control
Increased transparency means some people will have more access to other people and information than they had before. Direct contact between individuals working on a problem may lead to a novel solution faster, but it may also lead to problems in planning employee time allocations. Equally, access to work-in-progress information may lead to leaks and premature release of information. Where there are good business or compliance reasons for organisational boundaries to be respected, then this has to be reflected in the deployment of social software environments as well.
Inaccuracies, falsehoods, time-wasting and groupthink
Where users can publish without restriction, quality could suffer. While speculation and idea exploration is healthy, it can become a problem if taken out of context and misinterpreted. Worse, it is possible for comments to be made maliciously or perhaps in pursuit of hidden agendas. Also, people can fall into groupthink – a process whereby the wisdom of crowds turns into the stupidity of crowds. Social software will amplify equally those voicing frustration or spreading sloppiness as those exercising their creative capabilities. Discussion might degenerate into time-wasting, loud persistent people might shout down other voices and there might be negativity and personal attacks.
There are many ways to protect against these undesirable situations. First, much of the overtly false malicious comments can and should be dealt with through existing workplace policies on acceptable behaviour. Another recommendation is not to allow anonymity. Ideally, any social software implementation should be part of a single, sign-on directory infrastructure that recognises each user. A separate, anonymous posting area may be set aside to collect feedback on sensitive subjects or whistleblower comments. Another good practice is to identify and encourage individuals to oversee and exert soft social control to steer an activity in the right direction. Visibility of user profiles can be helpful in judging the quality of a given comment or proposal. Magazines and newspapers scrutinise their sources; we should also look at the source to determine how much to trust an internal blog or wiki.
Impact on privacy
Much of the value of a social software environment relies on uncovering connections between people and the information they use. While analysis of attention metadata (looking at what people spend their time on, who they communicate with, what they write and what they bookmark) can yield valuable information, it can also be seen as an employee monitoring tool. Most products are flexible enough to allow a user to decide what information is collected about them and to whom it is made available. It is important implementations are consistent with privacy regulations and all participants are aware of the degree of control they have and the benefits to them personally from a pooling of some attention metadata.
When considering potential risks it is important to remember these are not new risks. Idle conversation, time-wasting and the circulation of inaccurate information are all possible whenever people interact – whether face-to-face, in meetings, on the phone, by email, or via the intranet and the internet. Socialising technologies add yet another set of environments that can carry and amplify problems just as they can help us work more effectively. What is new here is the lack of established cultural norms for acceptable behaviour.
Explicit policies, along the lines of the ones already in place for email and internet use, can help to establish a baseline of what is not acceptable. But learning how to use the new tools, while minimising the risks, depends on establishing common norms that can shape behaviour just as much as explicit policy. A balanced approach to risk management should include reminders that general policies on personal responsibility, accountability and acceptable use apply equally in the context of open collaboration environments. Any interventions should be measured and focused on cultivating and reinforcing the common norms that counter tendencies toward misuse, disrespect, distortions and time-wasting.
Mary Ann Maxwell, group vice-president, executive programmes, Gartner, will be a keynote speaker in the CIO Conference 2007 with the theme “The new CIO agenda: Business leadership and innovation” on 18-19 September, Sky City Convention Centre, Auckland. Please visit cio.co.nz/conference for more details.
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