There is, quite frankly, an awful lot of guff talked about social networks. Top of the list of guff for me at the moment is “An enterprise social network will make people connect with lots of new people.”

Why do I see this as marketing flatulence? Well, because it just doesn’t map to the ways in which most people use social networks outside of a work environment.

This moment of insight came to me in the early chapters of Danah Boyd’s fascinating anthropological study “It’s Complicated”, in which she looks in detail at the social networking behaviours of teenagers. Part of the millennial’s hype tells us that the young are hyper-connected, intrinsically more networked than their predecessors and all as a result of being natively cognisant to the power of online social networks. The way Boyd paints the picture of actually observing behaviours, the use of social networks as a “place” amongst teens today is the same as the shopping mall for US kids of old (and bus shelters for us Brits). Most importantly in this comparison, social networks are places in which we “hang out” with people we already know.

Which made me realise – most people (and there are an awful lot of people using services from Facebook to LinkedIn) use them to connect and stay in touch with people we already know. Twitter might be the exception to prove the rule, but the way in which its much more promiscuous social network operates seems to have stalled in terms of growth indicates to me that it’s not the way the mass market wants to be.

This revelation for me further calls into question the premise behind Facebook at Work. The assumptions behind the business version of the product are:

  • most people use Facebook out of work
  • therefore most people use Facebook
  • therefore Facebook at Work will make work more collaborative
  • and Facebook themselves use the thing, so it must work

But this is flawed beyond credibility: there are many things that we use out of work that it would be remarkably difficult to contextualised within a work environment – say, television, for example; assuming that people can apply skills from outside of work into a work context is very dangerous because context is everything; if by “more collaborative” we mean “a broader network of people” – well, that’s not how most of us use social networks outside of work; and Facebook are no case study because they have deliberately structured their organisation in a non-traditional “no silos” way (see Gillian Tett’s “The Silo Effect” for a detailed exploration of that).

If you want to increase the breadth and diversity of the networks within an organisation, an enterprise social network isn’t going to have that impact in of itself – you need an enterprise dating site. Tinder for Business, if you will. But you also need to encourage people to become much more socially promiscuous, to think strategically about how to build and extend their networks, and to get “networking” regarded as something that isn’t just something done by the oleaginous sales fraternity. Because, left to our own devices, most of us won’t.

My ongoing research into collaboration, collaboration software, and why those two worlds so rarely collide can be found at http://bit.ly/sharingorg

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