Posted by: karisyd | March 3, 2012

“Social Networking cannot be planned!”

There was a an article in the Australian CIO magazine a couple of days ago, and I can’t help but write a comment.

The article reports on a study carried out by Altimeter group named “Making the Business Case for Enterprise Social Networking”. The study was widely retweeted; it claims that a lack of planning of social networking initiatives is behind a lack of success in many organisations. The article states that “[to] improve their chances of success, organisations need to define clear objectives for using ESN software, and once it’s implemented, they must monitor and analyse usage in a way that gives them an idea of whether these goals are being met.”

Charlene Li, author of the study and founder of Altimeter group is cited in the study saying the following:

“What is the pain point? What is the problem you’re trying to solve? If that’s not clear, then you shouldn’t be using [ESN] (…) This isn’t easy. There is no magic bullet to it. It requires a rethinking of the relationships inside your organization, and therefore a rethinking of your culture.”

Well, this is – frankly – nonsense. Let me explain.

First of all, social networking cannot be planned. I have argued numerous times that social media are open, flexible platforms that need to be made part of a work practice before we can even know what exactly they will become, what their role in a concrete work practice will be. Countless very different cases are testimony to the fact that the outcomes, while most often beneficial, are quite unpredictable. How then will you plan this? It doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t really work. I have argued that we need to rethink systems management and approach it as a series of experiments. Our SNEP study has further shown how such networks evolve.

Second, if you cannot foresee what social networking might become in your organisation, how do you define meaningful goals and how will you measure them? I understand that this might be unsettling from a management point of view, but if we have learned one thing from three years research on ESN then that there is a fundamental difference between E2.0 platforms and traditional IT in the way they are undefined from the onset (btw, in my view they are not even that different really, they appear different; goal setting and measurement of success didn’t work all that well in the ‘old’ world either, but it was easier to ignore, because the IT department was in charge).

Finally, I want to say that this does not mean that you cannot sensibly guide the user sense making process in nudging adoption in the right direction. But this has more to do with leadership, improvisation, tinkering, than with planning, execution and measurement. Sure, there are a few things we can do to drive adoption, but the feeling remains that Altimeter Group is trying to push an agenda with their study rather than to propagate good understanding of the subject matter.

As a final highlight, think about the quote above: “It requires a rethinking of the relationships inside your organization, and therefore a rethinking of your culture.” What does that even mean? “Rethinking the relationships? Rethinking the culture?” How do you do that? Rethink your culture, then plan and execute it? If anyone understands what that means, let me know. Otherwise, I’ll stick to what we’ve learned from our research.




  1. Dear Kai

    Just as I hear the point you are making re the organic nature of social media and what you took issue with regarding the Altimeter approach, the headline of this blogpost will not win you any support in most corporations.

    Having been a champion of the social enterprise and early adopter and practitioner since 2007 in AMP, we find that success favour the prepared. And that means, having a plan.We have run many experiments and been agile and adaptive and failed with some and enjoyed surprise successes along the way….but its not helpful to go to anyone who has a vested interest in maintaining the integrity of a brand, a process or customer experience to suggest its a nonsense to plan.

    A more useful message for the uninitiated would be: Have a plan, make a start, be alert, watch what happens, and adjust the plan based on what you are discovering and learning.

    Secondly, I think it is VERY possible to plan a specific intervention if you have specific outcomes in mind. In this regard, I refer you to the work of Prof BJ Fogg of Stanford University’s Persuasive Technologies Lab, where start-ups and designers plan very carefully what behaviour they want to impact and what technologies they would select to best achieve these outcomes. Its all about the plan! 1. What motivation and ability would a consumer need to take action? What babysteps would be part of a sequence to get a consumer to chance their behaviour over time? And what triggers would tip them over from inaction to action.

    Too many business people already think social media just a jungle of chaos and that belief undermines the efforts of the innovators working towards change and adoption.

  2. Hi Annalie,

    I get your drift. Let me say the following. First of all, I am not that dependent on winning support from corporations. I don’t need to sell anything :-). My intention as a researcher is to get to the bottom of these phenomena and the support and encouragement I receive regarding our findings is pretty good so far.

    One thing I want to clarify though is that I am talking exclusively about the application of social networking within the organisation – not engagement with consumers in social media. If you want to roll out a social media campaign or engage with your customers in social media, I completely agree, planning and careful execution is key!

    But in getting social networking/social media to lead to more productive (typically knowledge-intensive) work practices inside the organisation, outcome-oriented planning is simply not possible. But I am not saying that one should be unprepared or passive. All I’m saying is that the outcomes cannot be foreseen (e.g. how work practices will change) and that one cannot plan and measure. After all, we are talking professionals taking on board and making sense of the technologies in a skill-full way. Again, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a process that facilitates the development of codes of conduct and certain rules, but this is all about process, not planning.

    Finally, I’m familiar with the work on behavior design and persuasive technologies. I’m not a big fan – the whole concept operates on a very narrow and simplistic view of human behavior. Philosophically, this is not tenable (and it’s therefore only applicable in certain areas). I wouldn’t encourage anyone to build their organisational management programs on this. But this is a discussion for another day…

    Thanks for posting anyway! I would love to hear what you think.

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