Monday, April 14, 2008

Twitter usage in corporate settings

Note: This blog is based on a comment I made on Sam Lawrence's blog "Twitter: A Two-way social computer" . I felt that I hadn't said all that I wanted to say about the topic. I also read @shelisrael's blog about Laura Fitton where she talks about corporate use of twitter and found some other points on which I wanted to "dwell".

I'm a twitter addict like most and as one cog in a large corporate machine, I (and many others) have been imagining if and how this technology and/or metaphor (which in my opinion is more interesting) could be applied in a corporate context. I think the marketing aspects of twitter usage ("a great vehicle for a brand extension") has been discussed in various blogs but as Laura Fitton said " To leave social media in the marketing/publicity layer is a HUGE mistake -- akin to saying email is only a marketing tool". I agree completely and in my comment to Sam's blog I attempted to examine this issue.

The success of twitter-like systems in corporate settings (internal usage only) would depend a lot on the characteristics of the particular organization in which they are being used:
  • Corporate size would have a huge impact on the viability of such systems. Compare a start-up with 20 users and a corporation with 1000, 10,000 or more users. One comment refers to the productivity loss with a company of a few 100 users. Think of what the “public timeline” in a multi-national with multiple divisions would look like. The potential of twitter-like systems is that you can post a question or comment into the “flow” and get a response from someone in the corporate social network with whom you have had no previous contact. In order for this to work, these individuals must pick out your comment amongst the thousands of other questions, ideas, random thoughts. This is difficult to achieve without the users doing nothing else but watching the flow (as I have discovered with twitter).

  • The difficulty in creating one single social network that depicts the corporate reality: In reality, individuals in the corporate setting are also part of many smaller social networks that represent their actual situation - the unique set of attributes that are associated with them. They are in various projects, based in certain location, etc. Based on the particular question that a user may toss into the flow, the involved social network changes as well. Maybe, I want to combine social networks: projects in China with projects dealing with dam-building. The tool in question should be deal with such request. Ideally, other tools in the corporate arena would also be able to identify which social network is appropriate based on the context of the work in which I am currently performing. If I’m working on a project plan, then it would be great to be able to watch the “flow” from other project members.

The definition of social networks is another difficulty: The value of such twitter-like systems is largely based on a correct definition of the network involved. I’m assuming that in larger corporations that the definition of social networks will be a mixture of automatically created social networks based on the individual’s current characteristics (See my blog Talkin’ through the Machine: Thoughts on Indirect NetWeaver Participation in Social Computing Environments for more details) and an selection of followers / friends based on the individual’s own choices. The critical factor is in the creation of a network that enables you to perform your job as effectively as possible. This must be of course be counter-balanced by the innovation potential of having conversations with people who are outside of your “corporate-created” networks.

I think it also critical to see twitter not as an isolated tool but part of corporate IT infrastructure with other forms of collaboration. In this environment, the transition from the twitter-like system to a wiki or some other tool would be interesting to explore. The conversations that happen in the twitter-like systems are useful but what happens based on these conversations is more important. If you look at some of Laura's ideas - "Provide extensive personal and professional support" - how is this connected with other support tools). For example, I post a question into the “flow” in a bridge-building social network. Someone in another country sees my comment and responds. Based on this conversation, we decide to view the engineering drawing in question. The transition to some sort real-time collaboration environment should be easy and supported by the corporate infrastructure. Of course, you might consider the usage of such systems are akin to a spoken conversation between two employees but the technology adds a whole another angle to it.

Archiving is another issue that must be examined. In a large corporation (just as in twitter itself) flow is active at all times - weekends, middle of the night, etc. How do you assure that those great ideas that are added at inconvenient hours aren't lost forever.

The idea of separate social networks: I think that notion that there are two separate social networks (viewed at the meta level) - one based on my corporate experience and one based on my existence outside of the corporate arena - is still valid. An artificial attempt on the part of corporations to keep these areas apart is short-sighted and, in all likelihood, impossible to achieve. My current twitter network represents a combination of both worlds. - the corporate firewall make stop usage of twitter tools but an individual’s network itself exists outside corporate control.

From a corporate perspective, the power arises when these two networks start to merge - when I as an individual - if desired - can exploit their combined power to accomplish tasks. When I’m working on a large outsourcing project, there are individuals from different organizations - inside and outside the corporation - involved. To draw the line at firewall and say, “My social network can’t cross this line” no longer mirrors reality. It might be useful to distinguish between Intranet-, Extranet- and Internet-based social networks. From the corporate perspective (based as well on the tasks involved), a network that spans Intranet - Extranet might be more acceptable than Intranet-Internet (such an interaction is of course useful when talking to end-users / customers).

It would be interesting to discuss the various use cases - the processes involved - in the corporate arena where twitter might be useful and to examine the associated pain points that must be solved. Examining the ideas that Laura describes, I think the following ones have the most promise:

  • Summarize core ideas
  • Flatten the org chart to create feedback and mentoring
  • Fast sharing of ideas, news and information

I think these are also some of the reasons that makes twitter outside the corporate arena so fascinating. It's also curious to see that the topics are deal with improving communications between individuals in a network. Both environments are based on the successful creation and exploitation of a social network. The fact that the goals that motivate individuals in these two settings are usually different is also are reflected in the expectations regarding twitter and other similar systems.

1 comment:

Patrick Sikes said...

The biggest problem I foresee is company culture. I work at a mid size "media" retailer that has been in business since the 70's and quite a bit of the workforce has been here 20 or more years.

I am in charge of the intranet here and have implemented a yellow pages (with user bios, etc) and a wiki but uptake on these have been slow.

I think a internal twitter instance would get used by less than 5% of the company, so is it worth it?