Facebook and the enterprise: Part 1

First, a piece of apocrypha:

A very long time ago. Two shoe salesmen make the long journey by boat from England to Africa. Coach. Very tired. And on the first night there, despite their tiredness, they both send urgent telegrams home. One says “Nobody wears shoes here. Catching next boat home.”. And the other says “Nobody wears shoes here. Please send reinforcements”.

Nobody wears shoes here. It’s all about perspective.

That’s the way I feel about Facebook in the enterprise. Every enterprise has a choice, to “catch the next boat home” or to “send reinforcements”. Depends on how you look at it. So here are some perspectives to help you. Mine, admittedly, but then you would expect that here, wouldn’t you?

Feel Like I’ve been here before And you know It makes me wonder What’s going on Under the ground

We have all been here before We have all been here before

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young : Deja Vu (David Crosby)

Perspective 1: We have all been here before

I remember a time, it must have been the early 1980s, when it was common to ban phones with direct dial facilities. Why? Because people might talk to their friends and family during work time. It took a while for firms to figure out that this was a stupid thing to do, but most carried on with a limited ban, usually on international direct dialling. That lasted a little longer. Then, by the early 1990s, when internet e-mail emerged, it too was banned. In fact there are stories about the banning of corporate e-mail as well, continuing into this century. Soon it was the turn of Instant Messaging to bear the wrath of Corporate Policy. Then came blogs and wikis and social software in general. Now it’s about social networking.

Since the year Dot, there have been organisational Grand Panjandrums seeking to stop people from “talking”. Because that’s what all this is. Conversation. Phones. E-mail. IM. Blogs. Wikis. Social networking. Conversations. That’s all.

Banning Facebook is the equivalent of banning coffee shops and water coolers and loos.

Knutr was exceptionally tall and strong, and the handsomest of men, all except for his nose, that was thin, high set, and rather hooked. He had a fair complexion none the less, and a fine, thick head of hair. His eyes were better than those of other men, both the more handsome and keener of sight.

Knytlinga Saga

Perspective 2: Playing King Canute is not a smart thing to do

Think about it. While we’ve had Flickr and YouTube and Netvibes, while we’ve had MySpace and Orkut and Bebo and CyWorld and whatever else, while we’ve had Plaxo and LinkedIn and XING, Second Life and World of Warcraft, this is the first time we’ve had quite such a hullabaloo about a social networking site. Surely that must tell us something?

Facebook is different. Especially for Generation M. [Or, if you prefer, Y].

Every day 100,000 people that we might want to hire sign up with Facebook. Soon they will be asking potential employers “What’s your Facebook policy?” and losing interest as we ruefully explain our troglodyteness.

This wave is not for turning back. So let’s ride it.

Nobody goes there any more. It’s too crowded.

Yogi Berra (1925- )

Perspective 3: Never drive dissent underground

It’s like having your teenaged children play at home. You know what they are doing. If you tell them to stop making a noise or kicking that ball, then they’re going to find somewhere else to play. Out of sight.

That’s what will happen if you drive Facebook out of the enterprise. They will go somewhere else. Some company else. So we should make the effort to encourage them to stay.

This is not about Enterprise Big Brother and spying on staff. It’s about common sense. The same reason companies have watercoolers and coffee drinking areas. Or cash dispensers. Or canteens. If you make it easier for people to go about their business, then they will produce higher quality work. Which brings me to my next point.

Ye shall know them by their fruits

Matthew 7:16

Perspective 4: Concentrate on outputs

When you stop people from using things like Facebook, you are spending time concentrating on inputs rather than outputs. We do not live in a clocking-in environment any more. We need to continue to empower people, ask them to take responsibility and accountability for what they do, and to incentivise them on their performance. We should care about what people do, I am not preaching abdication of accountability for actions. We should care about how people do things, to ensure that they do things the right way. I am not preaching an “end – justifies – the – means ” approach. But what I am saying is:

Results matter, not efforts.

In a hurricane, build windmills

Ancient Chinese proverb

Perspective 5: When you can’t beat them, join them

A few months before I started this blog, I said: I believe that it is only a matter of time before enterprise software consists of only four types of application: publishing, search, fulfilment and conversation. I called them Four Pillars. When I look at Facebook, I see Four Pillars in action. I see Syndication of Content. I see Search. I see Fulfilment. And I see Conversation.

Imagine coming in to work, booting up your laptop and being presented with something akin to Facebook. Where, immediately, you see a bunch of news events about things at work you are interested in. Where you have one inbox for your mail, covering text and audio and video forms. Where you sign up to meetings you are interested in going to. Where you sign up to professional communities you are interested in belonging to. Where you can tell people what you are doing, and poll people to ask them their opinion on things. Where you can share information about the things you are working on.

Imagine being able to receive repeat mails only from people you have linked to; imagine being able to block mails from people. Imagine being given information as to which colleagues are online when. Imagine being able to search across people and projects and products and meetings and groups and events and whatever. Imagine knowing who is part of what in a timely and transparent way.

Imagine people building applications that solve real business problems and making those applications available to you, but at a time and place of your choosing. Imagine being able to find out which of your friends are using a given application, imagine being able to ask them their opinion about the application.

Imagine being able to do all this in a simple and open and transparent and collaborative way.

If you take the right perspective, there’s a lot you can do in an enterprise setting with Facebook. Who knows, maybe we shall soon see IT departments with a Facebook applications team embedded in them…..

Let’s harness the power of social networking tools, make them work for us in the enterprise.

I shall write more on Facebook in the enterprise, because I want to stimulate the right debates. In the meantime, I’d like to make three quick points:

  • Facebook is open, it is porous at the edges. Enterprises need to embrace porousness, need to connect with their customers and their partners and their supply chain.
  • Facebook is open, yet it is as private as you want to make it. Thankfully, it starts with an open rather than closed approach, but you have adequate control as to who can see what. Enterprises need to understand and adopt this Start-open-then-only-close-what-you-must mindset. It is an essential ingredient of collaboration, a spirit that every enterprise needs to foster.
  • Facebook is open, yet with persistent searchable retrievable information and conversation. Enterprises need to understand and embed themselves into this record-everything-archive-everything-search-everything-retrieve-everything mindset.

I don’t have stock in Facebook, never had any. I’ve met Mark Zuckerberg briefly in 2004, that’s all. I will admit to having one friend who works for Facebook, but he was doing something else when I first met him (working for Apple). So I have no axe to grind.

There will be other Facebooks. Maybe there will be some who are better. That is not the point. The point is that enterprises can obtain real value from Facebook. But not by banning Facebook. Of course people need to behave responsibly, focusing on the outputs they are incentivised to create; this they will do; we should not assume that irresponsible behaviour by a few justifies punishment of the many. [It was this logic that was applied for the banning of international direct dial phone calls. Companies tended to bar such calls on most phones because of misuse and abuse by a very small portion of staff].

More to follow. Comments welcome.

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