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More enterprise social networks fail because of humans, not technology

Issues surrounding trust and other people problems can destroy enterprise social network projects, and one consultant recommends being up-front about failures to help these projects survive.

BOSTON -- Enterprise social network projects are more often ruined by people’s fears, power plays and inability to trust than any technology mishap.

That, at least, is according to Kevin Jones, an independent consultant who is currently working for NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., on a social enterprise project called ExplorNet.

Drawing from his experiences at NASA as well as with other clients, Jones outlined commonly made mistakes associated with collaborative software implementations while presenting at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference held here this week. 

In a follow-up interview, Jones said technology can contribute to failure, but it is almost always people problems that kill company-wide social networking strategies.

“The tools are part of it, for sure, but you have to be much more strategic with the people themselves,” Jones said. “If I were to pick an ideal person to lead, they have to know culture and people really, really well. I would take someone who knows that and nothing about the technology over someone who knows the technology but not the people.”

Jones said one of the key causes of failure is the inability to trust. One group at the Marshall Space Flight Center dug in its heels about collaborating with others outside of the group, Jones said. The manager resisted the most, claiming he didn’t trust his people to behave. He was concerned they wouldn’t appear “smart” to others or that they might “bash other groups,” Jones said.

While managers may not trust their staff, employees often have an even more difficult time trusting management. As a result, they may resist participating in internal social networks out of fear of retribution should they publicly criticize a higher-up.

One suggestion from an attendee at Jones’ Enterprise 2.0 presentation: Have an executive post something on the network that deliberately contains some inaccurate information. Then have an employee post a response correcting the executive and have the executive post a positive response to his critique. This all plays out in public, and while it may be staged, it can jump-start conversations on internal networks. After more exchanges like this, people will feel more comfortable engaging on corporate forums.

“If you don’t trust, doing anything social is very difficult,” Jones said.

Another quick route to failure is to ignore the corporate political landscape while working on a collaboration project. Of his time at NASA, Jones said, “I’ve gotten my hand slapped so many times.”

He recalled when a group of managers became furious with him when he alerted the chief information officer about a project delay for which the managers were partly responsible. “The managers got embarrassed and they told me not to speak to the CIO anymore unless someone was with me,” Jones said.

“So then I wondered, ‘Well, do I tell the CIO that?’ ” Jones said. “I underestimated the landscape there.”

Overall, managers promoting collaboration projects need the courage to offend people, Jones said. This can be particularly tricky during tough economic times when people are more fearful of losing their jobs. “People can start closing up, and that works against you,” Jones said.

Jones shared other project pitfalls as well, including the following:

Treat the project as yours and not a team effort. “I did this and quickly – not quickly enough – realized if it is just yours, you won’t get as much buy-in,” Jones said.

Treat the project as an IT project. It won’t sell as well, Jones and some attendees claimed. “It should be a people project with an element of IT.”

Don’t talk about the failures. Do that and no one will learn, Jones said. “We like to hide our failures, but we need to turn them into something to learn from.”


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