Be afraid, be very afraid

By Joe Shepley posted 02-18-2011 08:39


I’m in the middle of a great read about social media and the enterprise, Open Leadership, by Charlene Li. And while a dedicated consideration of the ideas and concepts in it would be a great subject for a post all on its own, I wanted to focus on one aspect of her book, the fear of openness, and use it as a jumping off point for this post.

Li talks a lot about organizational fear of openness, but for the most part the fear she discusses has to do with large scale PR meltdowns, whether internal or external—an employee posting something monstrous on a corporate blog, a flame war erupting on the corporate intranet over an executive blog, and so on.

She points out that, “the evidence is clear that [openness] works—in the past year the number of public incidents involving employees at companies with very open social media policies (including Sun, Intel, and IBM) is a whopping…zero” (108). And in terms of public incidents, she’s right.

But I think there’s more to corporate fear of openness than just PR scandals. So I want to take a look at some of the more mundane—but definitely more tangible—fears that I see holding organizations back from embracing the degree of openness required to embrace Enterprise 2.0.

The perfect storm

There are three factors in play for organizations that, taken together, make the decision to embrace E2.0 difficult and something to be carefully considered:

  • The increasing scope of discoverable content types
  • The increasing complexity of the social media and collaboration technology landscape
  • The lack of regulatory guidance on social media and collaboration

The expansion of discoverable content types has been on the radar screen at organizations since the mid-90s and has certainly caused its fair share of corporate anxiety all by itself. The complexity of social media and collaboration technologies ramped up in earnest with the launch of MOSS 2007 but has accelerated over the last two years with the explosion of point solutions in the social media space. And the lack of regulatory guidance on social media and collaboration is a double-edged sword: although there’s been little in the way of direct regulatory guidance to date, it’s definitely coming on the horizon—we just don’t know what shape it’ll take.

Let’s look more closely at each of these before turning to some of the very real fears they’re causing at organizations considering the move to E2.0.

#1. The increasing scope of discoverable content types

Figure 1 provides a high-level depiction of how the scope of discoverable content has grown over the last twenty years.

Figure 1 – Expanding Scope of Discoverable Content Types, 1980 to the Present

In the first place, it’s important to note that what this chart captures isn’t the date that each of these content types came into widespread usage, but rather the date that each content type began showing up in e-discovery requests.

And what this increasing scope of discoverable content types  means for organizations (particularly those in heavily regulated or litigated industries) is that the effort, cost, and risk associated with litigation have never been higher—and are likely to continue increasing as the types of content that are in scope for discovery continue to expand.

So if I’m a General Counsel at a large insurance company, for example, I would have a pretty good argument for trying to stem the tide of discoverable content types at web content by either heavily restricting or completely banning content types like IMs and social media.

Would this place my firm at a competitive disadvantage in terms of our customer engagement and workforce productivity? It very well might. But it very well might also give us a competitive advantage if we could lower our e-discovery costs and risks below industry averages and invest those savings back into building other key business capabilities.

#2. The increasing complexity of the social media and collaboration technology landscape

At its heart, the complexity of the social media and collaboration technology landscape has less to do with the number of vendors in the space (although this is also increasing) than with what some of these vendors are trying to accomplish with their products.

Figure 2 – Social Media and Collaboration Technology Quadrants

As Figure 2 illustrates, we can slice up the social media and collaboration domain into quadrants based on two criteria: the target audience and the kind of collaboration enabled. As you can see from the examples in the figure, there have been plenty of vendors building products that address these quadrants in isolation—and this will continue going forward.

Figure 3 –Disruptive Forces in the Social Media and Collaboration Technology Landscape

But as you can see from Figure 3, there are a number of vendors positioning their products across these quadrants in an attempt to disrupt the status quo and enable different kinds of work at the organization.

On the one hand, you have enterprise collaboration products, of which SharePoint has been and continues to be the market leader. These products bridge the gap between the document-centric collaboration that’s the bread and butter of traditional content management systems and the conversation-centric collaboration more typically associated with corporate intranets and portals.

On the other hand you have social business software, lead by products like Jive and Drupal, which connect the conversation-centric collaboration typically kept separate on corporate intranet and internet properties. The goal is to easily and seamless share content across the firewall in an effort to deepen customer and employee engagement with the organization’s products and services.

I’ll leave a consideration of the nitty-gritty details of these technologies to the experts, but what’s important to note here is that organizations trying to determine the best technology portfolio to support E2.0 face serious challenges sorting out who does what best, where products overlap, where they don’t, and which approach (single or multiple quadrant) is optimal in any given case.

#3. The lack of regulatory guidance on social media and collaboration

As Figure 3 shows, out of the range of big regulators out there, only FINRA has taken a definitive stance on social media. The rest of these bodies have yet to address social media in any sustained or significant way.

Figure 4 – Regulatory Bodies and Social Media

If this were the end of the story, there wouldn’t be too much to worry about. But as I mentioned earlier, the lack of regulatory guidance is only half the story. The real kicker is that regulators will certainly, at some point in the not-too-distant future, specifically address social media. However, what this will look like for any given regulatory body is anybody’s guess…and guessing wrong can have serious consequences for an organization that’s built an enterprise platform or core business process that’s no longer in compliance.

Real fears

As Figure 5 shows, the factors we’ve looked at above work together to create a climate where organizations are justifiably anxious about taking the plunge into E2.0…or even dipping their toes.

Figure 5 – Enterprise 2.0 Challenges Facing Organizations Today

In my travels working with clients and speaking at industry events, I bump up against the manifestation of this anxiety almost daily:

  • How can we ensure that today’s technology will work with tomorrow’s content?
  • What if the technology we pick doesn’t survive vendor and market consolidation?
  • How do we pick defensible strategy, tactics, and technology platform in the absence of regulatory guidance?
  • What if later regulatory action invalidates the strategy, tactics, and technology platform we choose?

Without clear and compelling answers to these kinds of questions, it’s difficult to get CXO buy in for embracing E2.0—and rightly so. Getting any of these wrong can be disastrous for an organization, and that risk alone is enough for many organizations to justify missing out on the competitive advantages E2.0 offers.

The final word

All of this is not to say that external or internal PR meltdowns aren’t keeping CXOs up at night—they are. But in my experience, this isn’t the main reason organizations fear the openness that E2.0 requires. The more mundane fears I’ve outlined here not only seem to be more prevalent among my clients but also more likely to come to pass for most firms.

As Li mentions, there haven’t been any big PR meltdowns at open organizations in the last year; but lots of organizations have indeed been burned by shifting regulations in their industry, by vendor consolidation, and by smoking crater e-discovery events.

As an E2.0 practitioner, I feel strongly that a big part of my job is not just to help allay organizational fears about E2.0, but to help organizations put structures and processes in place to mitigate the very real risks that are at the heart of their fears. Given the likelihood that these fears may well be real, anything less would be a failure to serve a client’s best interests.

In the next post I’d like to turn from fear to hope and talk about some ways to move forward with E2.0 despite the very real risks I’ve outlined here; because despite these risks, I believe that organizations have no choice but to embrace E2.0. So they’ve got to find ways to mitigate these risks as they do so or they’ll be out of business.

But in the meantime, I’d love to hear from you all out there—so jump in and get the conversation started!

#OpenLeadership #E20