Should IT keep its distance from social media?

This morning I chaired a panel discussion at the Enterprise Social Media conference in London. The two practitioners on the panel were, appropriately enough, communications professionals and both spoke of ‘employee engagement’ as the principal aim of their internal social media deployments.

Anthony Frost, head of corporate communications at Santander UK, explained how social media was just one part of the company’s plan to forge a communal identity across its three subsidiaries; Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley. Similarly, Sonia Carter, head of online internal communications at AXA UK, spoke of the relationship between organisation and employee as the explicit focus of that company’s internal social media efforts.

But also shared by the panelists was a view that the involvement of the IT department in their social media projects had not been altogether positive.

In AXA UK’s case, the communications department had directly flaunted IT policy to provision a server on which to base its social collaboration system. When the system proved so popular that the IT department was forced to mount it on core infrastructure, the cost was ten times that of the original development.

It is, of course, quite common for ‘the business’ to view the IT department as nay–sayers, as sticklers for process and procedure, and as the people who can put a price tag on anything. Among the many reasons for this we can list the complexity of IT systems and the requisite requirement for rigorous management, poor communication and a failure on the side of the business to understand exactly what goes on behind the scenes and why.

But judging by this morning’s panel, that sentiment appears to be especially pronounced with regard to social media. And this chimes with Gartner’s recent prediction that between now and 2012 more than two-thirds of social media projects that are led by IT will fail.

So what is it about social media and IT that means they mix so badly?

One possible explanation is that successful IT projects are often about good planning: How many people will be using a system; what capacity will be required to support them; what will the knock-on effect for neighbouring systems be? – all this is typically worked out in advance.

Social systems, meanwhile, should involve as little planning as possible. It is impossible to predict precisely how the community will use the tools, and to prescribe that for them is to both dissuade adoption and to miss the opportunity to see what users themselves want.

At root, there needs to be a sense of communal ownership for a social system to work properly, and the typical IT department's rigorous – rather than nurturing – style of stewardship may not be conducive.

Now, it would be thoroughly irresponsible to suggest that IT departments should therefore wash their hands of internal social media projects. As the projects grow, they will inevitably produce the kind of information management, data protection, integration and performance issues that will need their input.

A more sensible – albeit more difficult – approach would be to consider ways in which IT can introduce process and rigour at such appropriate times as not to discourage engagement, experimentation and communal ownership.

This in itself would be a powerful skill for all IT departments to develop and apply to systems of any kind, as letting users lead the way gradually must surely improve the chances of adoption and utility.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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