Despite hype surrounding the use of wikis, blogs, social networks and other tools in the workplace, social software in businesses is still more of a grassroots effort led by frontline users than it is a company-wide collaboration practice, according to a new Nielsen Norman Group study.
The user experience research firm cased 14 companies in six countries for the 168-page report, "Enterprise 2.0: Social Software on Intranets: A Report From the Front Lines of Enterprise Social Software Projects," co-authored by Patty Caya and Jakob Nielsen. Participants include IBM, BT, Intel, Sun Microsystems and Sprint Nextel; other companies preferred anonymity.
"Underground adoption of off-the-shelf Web 2.0 tools might seem out of character in the enterprise, but users see the value of these tools and are more often than executives able to translate that value to an internal use," said Jakob Nielsen, principal of Nielsen Norman Group.
The front-line workers, a kind of Facebook Generation, are leading this adoption. Members of this group are typically 20-somethings just out of college, or even those who have been using social tools for four or five years. Such workers have been groomed on social networks such as MySpace and Facebook, or even hosted their own blogs through Blogger, Movable Type, WordPress or some other platform.
"As social tools begin to shape workers' expectations for how they get things done, it raises expectations for how they collaborate and communicate and participate in content development," said Nielsen Norman Group user-experience specialist Patty Caya. "The social Web has turned consumers into producers and this will impact how they work."
Accordingly, these workers expect blogs, wikis, RSS feeds and other outlets in the workplace. Nielsen found that many senior managers still consider social tools something their teenagers use, highlighting a disconnect between management and their subordinates.
Managers risk losing workers who expect innovation in the outside world to reflect directly on how they communicate at work. Herein lies the Catch-22: Adopting such tools too quickly can trigger a culture clash that leads to unintended consequences, such as information leaks.
These managers "are turning a blind eye to underground social software efforts until they prove their worth, after which they integrate them more thoroughly," Nielsen said, noting that the tools are a means to an end for solving business problems.