I've lost count of the number of times people have asked me how they can convince their senior executives that social in business is not a waste of time. It's one of those frustrating challenges - as much as we are seeing a phenomenal growth in the awareness and recognition of the value of better collaboration to create more efficient and more differentiated businesses, there is still an ongoing battle in many organisations to overcome the fears created by the "Facebook for the enterprise" concept. Because, let's face it, the "F" word (I mean "Facebook", obviously) in many cases does more harm than good in this context. As much as Facebook has been a fantastic trailblazer for social technologies, and is an easy way to demonstrate what is meant by "social" software, for the super-conservative senior executive (and even the less senior ones), suggesting that it would be a good idea to create an internal company application where people can spend hours chatting socially with their friends, upload photos of their kids and various exploits, and spend hours playing gimmicky games, is hardly going to sell the concept.
Even when you get past this, and explain that social collaboration is about taking advantage of social techniques and technologies to create a more engaging, communicative and collaborative working environment, it is frequently still painfully difficult to get those key stakeholders past the concerns that creating this type of open, unrestricted communications platform is a recipe for anarchy. "We don't want our dirty laundry to be held up for all to see" or "We don't want to give employees with a grudge a platform like that" are not uncommon concerns, nevermind the views that it's just encouraging people to "waste time" while they should be "working".
So how do you overcome these negative impressions? How can you show them that it's the opportunities that social collaboration brings that are key, and that these concerns are misplaced?
The first thing to do is to focus on the business need. Look at your organisation's overall strategy - what are the key goals you are driving towards? Can better communication and collaboration across your organisation play a role in enabling this? Clearly the answer won't always be yes, but in the majority of cases there is little that cannot be enabled by better communication, if not better collaboration. The best way to get buy-in for something where there is resolute objection is to actually show the benefits it can bring. Perhaps you can demonstrate how much more productive your sales team could be if they could see what each other is working on, share materials and experiences, and ask questions of colleagues in realtime using social collaboration tools. Or maybe you can show that allowing people in different teams to talk openly can help best practices to be shared across different parts of the business, improving efficiency and therefore saving you money. The answer will depend on your particular situation, but the key is to personalise your argument to your business' needs and goals.
Once you have this, you can look at governance and policy - for some organisations, simply documenting what is expected of people in a social collaboration environment is enough to reassure management that you will keep anarchy at bay. However, it's important to avoid being too heavy handed and prescriptive here - remember that a Big Brother approach can quickly smother enthusiasm and discussion. Your guidelines should be an extension of your HR and email usage policies, treating social collaboration as another business communication tool rather than as a strange new gizmo.
When it comes down to it, the biggest issue is trust, and trusting your employees to behave in an appropriate way. The reality is that if people want to waste their time they will, whether or not you deploy social collaboration tools in your business (after all, they can access their public Facebook and Twitter accounts from their personal smartphones, even if your organisation blocks access on work devices). In practice, few organisations find that governance is an issue on internal social collaboration platforms - once everyone understands how things work, initial concerns fade away.
Clearly each organisation will have its own challenges. But if you focus on those challenges and consider how social collaboration can help your organisation meet its goals, it will be much easier to persuade your executives of its potential value. Oh, and avoid the "F" word if you can.