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Nigel Wallis, research director at IDC Canada. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
Nigel Wallis, research director at IDC Canada. (Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Earlier discussion

What is the future of office communication? Add to ...

As social networking websites continue to rise in popularity and prominence, a growing number of businesses are looking to adopt that model for the workplace. Instead of stunting productivity and encouraging a slacker mentality, employers are recognizing that harnessing the strengths of a social network can actually have the opposite effect.

But what are the advantages of this system? And how best can Canadian companies implement it?

Nigel Wallis, research director at research firm IDC Canada, believes there are several hurdles in the way; not least ensuring top-level managers migrate to the new system.

“The senior management buy-in is reasonably important,” he says. “If the only people who jump on it are your interns, it’s going to die."

Launching incrementally in various departments could encourage participation and is “a better way to share notions and ideas,” Mr. Wallis adds.

“There’s a lot of friction,” he says. “If you don’t get to critical mass fast enough, then people say, ‘Oh, it’s lame.’”

So, are company-wide social networks a lame idea or the future of office communication? Nigel Wallis joined us for a live chat.

Niamh O'Doherty - Good afternoon, I'm Niamh O'Doherty. Welcome to our live chat about the future of office communication with Nigel Wallis, research director at IDC Canada. Please feel free to begin sending in your questions now.

1:00

Niamh O'Doherty - Everyone, please welcome Nigel Wallis. Nigel, can you tell us a little about your role at IDC Canada?

1:01

[Comment From Nigel Wallis ]

Hello - discussing office communication technology may not seem all that interesting, but as it turns out, the average North American employee spends somewhere around 13 hours a week reading & answering corporate email. That's a lot of time. With the advent of new social networks as well as the improvement of older technologies such as IM and video, Canadian enterprises are having to consider the future of how they collaborate & communicate.

1:01

Niamh O'Doherty - Now, onto the questions....

1:02

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Hello, my role is the research director for enterprise applications at IDC Canada. So I look at what, why and how companies buy technology - and what they are going to do differently in the future.

1:02

[Comment From Daniel Puiatti ]

How can I persuade my organization's management that embracing social media platforms is a good idea?

1:03

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

that's a common question. The risks are apparent and obvious - privacy, security, time wasting, etc. So why get onboard?

1:05

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

when we surveyed Canadian businesses, they responded that the benefits included better, faster collaboration as well as faster time to market, reduced spend on personal time for searching through the advent of wiki's and the like as well as increased productivity

1:05

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

including in unexpected areas, like quicker resolution of customer problems.

1:06

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

that said, the way social business has crept into Cdn business is primarily through informal individual or departmental level adoption.

1:06

[Comment From Lyle ]

There has already been some adoption of "sharing" communications approaches such as use of wikis. I see these as forerunners of move to a fullblown social network approach. What's the evidence on how effective these early approaches have been for different types of businesses and sectors?

1:06

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

That is, through people like yourself finding personal efficiencies - and then managers signing on.

1:07

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Lyle: Hit and miss. For instance, the aim of Enterprise 2.0 goes all the way back to advent of the original Lotus collaboration software

1:07

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

then there was the boom in portals circa 1999-2003 or so

1:08

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

each of these was well-intentioned, but rarely lead to the adoption or collaboration we thought would happen

1:09

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

The upside today is that there is a different view on sharing across personal & professional lives (thanks Facebook, Myspace!) - and a better awareness of the value of collaboration

1:10

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

That said, your comment on wikis points out a classic issue - 1-9-90 is the typical ratio between creaters, participants and passive non-interaction types. How does the ROI get better if the technology doesn't help increase the number of people engaged.

1:10

[Comment From Harry ]

Given a team needs to put together a proposal, what would the collaborative workflow look like using a social networking site?

1:11

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Whihc is why we see a number of specific technologies aimed a either certain problems - like Rypple, a Canadian based software firm that focuses on employment engagement and wants to move past the old style of annual reviews

1:11

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

or on specific departments.

1:13

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Harry - it depends on the purpose and nature of the department/group looking at the social networking site. For instance, marketing departments now have to engage with social business through facebook, twitter and other sources. How do they model the escalation of problems, or the feedback of successes? It's not that different than the previous model for customer service - the difference is in scale, speed and permanent public transparency

1:14

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

for internal use cases - I would advise looking at the costs of using free or low-cost technologies & compare the time, and cost savings for those versus hosting everything yourself, including back-up, retention, network data charges, etc.

1:15

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

versus the classic cc:ing everyone on emails, which leads to mass frustration

1:16

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

That reminds me. Chris Anderson of Wired.com recently published an email charter: http://emailcharter.org

1:17

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

with 10 rules to try and stop people from drowning in email. There are some really useful ones in there that people should consider adopting.

1:17

[Comment From Andrew ]

Can you give some specific examples of how you see different social media platforms being used in a corporate environment?

1:19

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Andrew: Here's some examples from recent experience. Yammer - it's like a Twitter for enterprise or corporate use. It's real value to find other people in large corporations who have similar problems or experiences without having to cc: the entire company. So "Has anyone responded to a similar RFP" or equivalent. Moreover, the exchanges are captured & managers can use them to improve the internal business processes if recurring problems are discussed

1:20

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Salesforce.com launched Chatter as a collaboration tool that can be opened within your sales CRM engine.

1:20

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

which lets individuals within that department collaborate on their specific business process, with real-time, live access to the data

1:21

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Rypple - again, in terms of supporting the classic old school HR function of performance appraisal. Now it's real-time, visible, transparent and not unidirectional .

1:21

[Comment From Kevin ]

What do you believe will happen to inter-office etiquette?

1:22

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Jive is another interesting company - it lets you aggregate between these types of collaboration tools (IM, email, wiki's and the like) to search better

1:23

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Kevin - that can be pretty funny topic. In many ways, culture is self-policing. People DON'T SEND TOO MANY EMAILS IN ALL CAPS BEFORE THEY'RE CONVINCED OF WHY IT'S WRONG.

1:23

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

But the bigger deal is legal, HR and the lowering barrier between personal and professional lives

1:24

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

For instance, people have been fired for blogs all the way back to deuce in, what, 2005?

1:24

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

now they're being fired for twitter errors

1:25

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

partially because the lines between what's acceptable are blurry & changing every year, with every new technology. For instance, a senior manager at Microsoft's new Mobility group was just let go for releasing some spec's on a phone thru twitter.

1:26

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

but at the same time, he was charged with being enthusiastic & evangelizing the merits of their phones. Where's the line?

1:26

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

I think the internal aspect will become more clear. Already people instinctively know when to email people (attachments/medium term questions) versus BBM or IM (immediate, high priority problems)

1:27

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

The major email vendors are actually working on technologies to use data and algorithms to do this for us. For instance, gmail's trainable Priority Inbox

1:28

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Microsoft Outlook, especially with Exchange or Lync, has presence awareness - outlining what room/building/location people are in - and has beta tested spying on users to see whether they are 'thinking', 'working' or are in the "right" frame of mind to see email.

1:30

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

That's relevant because of studies like the following: In 2007, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, such as writing reports or computer code, after dealing with incoming email. They wandered off to reply to other messages or browse the Web.

1:30

[Comment From Michael ]

Do you recommend using off-the-shelf solutions to enable a system within an organization? Examples include opentext social communites, or microsoft sharepoint.

1:31

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Michael - in general, yes. Quicker to get up & running - and time is an under-appreciated asset. If your firm is tech-heavy, then utilizing a FOSS solution or developing your own makes sense as well. But in a lot of cases, that (going custom) adds more maintenance issues to the IT department without removing any.

1:33

[Comment From Dpuiatti ]

Do you think social media platforms are better designed to engage staff than a standard intranet?

1:36

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

In most cases, yes. The typical portal gets launched and within a year's time is predominantly used to download forms (mostly HR). There's very little interactivity. Even though they've gotten better over time, they're still built with different aims in mind - primarily distributing from the centre to the employee. The social platforms steal the more compelling UI from Facebook, Twitter, etc. to try and engage employees - which will be the biggest issue or stumbling block in most cases anyway, regardless of the technology.

1:37

[Comment From Kevin P ]

How important is it to extend corporate social networking capabilities to outside the company (customers, supply chain, etc.)?

1:39

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

It's important - whether through the adoption of Enterprise 2.0 type technologies or through external social sites (facebook, Google+, Twitter, etc.).

1:39

[Comment From Richnov ]

To me the real question is would this replace existing technology for short term comms or discussions or would this simply be another layer of technology that people will have to master, adding time and costs to productivity?

1:39

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

It engages customers, makes your brand or product stickier (which matters even for things like partnering or extended supply chains), improves your branding, lets you gather feedback fasster & cheaper, etc.

1:41

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Richnov - there's at least two possible answers to that. 1) most enterprise technologies don't seem to go away. If anything, it's almost sedimentary - they get submerged below new ones - at increased cost and complexity. 2) at this point, social business sites and tools should be well designed to the point where training should not be required for the employees, aside from the specific privacy, cultural and legal rules your firm has.

1:43

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

The upside of most of these Social Business (or external social networking sites) technologies is that they are often cloud-based - designed to operate through the vendors' data centres. Which may increase fears around privacy, but lowers capex.

1:43

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

the key to negotiating involves questions then around data retention & migration clauses in the contract if you want to change vendors or give up on the technology.

1:45

[Comment From ]

Some of the folks at our office use an internal version of MSN messenger to communicate. It seems like it is used mostly for non-work related chatting. How do other social media expect to find effiencies over an email system?

1:46

[Comment From Richnov ]

You raised my biggest concern - privacy. There are few businesses that I can think of that would appreciate seeing internal discussions on a public forum. There are plenty of tools that allow for discussions within an Intranet such as SharePoint and Lync, both of which we use and can include external contacts if desired.

1:46

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

It's funny how that always comes up. That it decreases productivity.

1:47

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

If I look at the typical usage of phones in an office - how much is work-related versus personal life? Or mobile phones for the mobile workforce? Ultimately, it comes down to whether you hire good people - if your workforce can't handle the appropriate usage of an IM client, then you have other, bigger cultural issues.

1:48

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Richnov - absolutely agree with you. That's one of the big selling points for IBM's Lotus Connections and Microsoft's Sharepoint products. That they have the features of their cloud competitors without the risks. That said, for products like Salesforce.com

1:49

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Salesforce.com

1:49

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

(sorry about that) Chatter product - it's natively cloud. So if your VP of Sales buys into the underlying systems of record going into the cloud, then the system of engagement will follow.

1:50

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

in fact, increasingly, email systems are going into the cloud as well -and it's hard to imagine any component of the business and personal life that is more fraught with privacy implications than that.

1:51

[Comment From Kevin P ]

Besides top-down support, what do you see as critical success factors for a successful social networking deployment inside the enterprise?

1:55

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Kevin P - at least a loosely defined purpose for the tool, whether internal or external. For instance, we've seen a number of companies launch Yammer - and not explain why anyone should engage with it. At first, a few people (hyper-enthusiastic types and over-sharers :) jump on it. But if it's an echo-chamber, they'll lose enthusiasm. In contrast, if the point is that the customer service department can now use a wiki to deal with the most common questions / concerns with the products - and that loops in the engineering department - then there's a richer, faster feedback loop between two departments that probably don't talk to each other, and may in fact be located in different cities.

1:56

[Comment From Richnov ]

"Cloud" is conceptual. Enterprises with strong IT components will evolve their own "clouds" that live behind a firewall and provide secure, robust comms across geographic and continental boundaries. It's not easy or inexpensive, but it is effective. Having a social media component to these clounds at technology evolves seems natural. But businesses will definitely want to protect their IP and that means their employees' discussions.

1:56

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

So pick low-hanging fruit. For instance, use twitter as a way to help deflect calls to customer support - or to engage your firm's biggest fans to effectively do product support for you. Likewise, in HR, use a tool explicitly for performance management.

1:57

Niamh O'Doherty - Thanks Nigel. Any last words before we wrap this up?

1:58

[Comment From Nigel Wallis]

Thanks for having me on this chat. I appreciate everyone's time, and I would say that in closing, I would expect that email is not going away - but that it will be augmented by new technologies & new uses over the next 3 years. Cheers

1:58

Niamh O'Doherty - Thanks everyone. Please feel free to continue the debate in our comments section - looks like there's a lot to talk about!



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