Social web in the enterprise: is large or small better?

I've been meaning to write this post since Gordon Rae tipped me off to this article, as I'm not 100% convinced that large enterprises make "superb test beds for social software". Sure, there are many characteristics of large enterprises which make this true: high volume of users, geographic distances that make other means of communication pale in comparison, likelihood of cross-team projects that require collaboration, and common interests/areas of focus between people in similar roles in different parts of the business - not to mention the fact that it's a closed system (environment). But there are also a few factors that make the opposite true. Large enterprises are slow-moving beasts, and they usually have existing systems that they've spent hundreds of thousands of pounds building, configuring and implementing. Any new software project will usually need to integrate or otherwise link up with these legacy systems, and that's something that not many social tools on the market today can do easily. Furthermore, the business will have spent a lot of time developing relationships with the suppliers of these legacy systems, and it can often be easier (or seemingly more cost-effective) to go back to an existing supplier when faced with a need for new functionality. In many cases, businesses will take whatever's presented to them by these trusted suppliers rather than waste time exploring whether or not the offered solution is the best tool for the users.

Even more challenging is the circumstance when social software is supposed to replace existing system(s). The business has invested so much in these systems, that it can be very tricky to disentangle the legacy tool, and incredibly complex to figure out how exactly to migrate across to the new one. Plus there's the burden of training & support. And funnily enough, there's also the cost factor. Ironically, most social software costs a fraction of what large enterprises pay for enterprise tools, and it's exactly this that is so off-putting to budget-holders. Most of them have been spending 6 figures on things for so long that they think anything with such a low price tag must be gimmicky, dubious or unfit for purpose.

In a large enterprise, it's the IT Manager/Director's job to support the infrastructure, keep the data safe, and ensure technology in the business is robust and reliable. These guys aren't supposed to take big risks, and that's just what many of them see when presented with most social web tools. It's much safer for them to stick with the Microsofts of the world than to embrace some new kid on the block whose reputation is only a few years old at best. The world of "permanent beta" just doesn't fly when it comes to large corporates; these guys need solid, tested, guaranteed secure, guaranteed working tools. Because if it all goes wrong, it's their ass on the line.

The formal style of management is also a factor in large enterprises. There tend to be several layers of management in these organisations,  and each of these will have their own KPIs and goals. It can be hard to sell in the value of seemingly "fluffy" benefits like having a more connected workplace or better collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Unless it's something that can be easily measured with cold hard facts or slots nicely into the SMART system of performance management, it's difficult to get buy in from all the necessary stakeholders. And without their support, you can rarely introduce new tools into the environment - or see them succeed if you do manage to get in there. When a worker's manager thinks "all this social web stuff is a waste of time", she's much less likely to spend time filling out her profile page, commenting on internal blogs or tagging documents.

I'm not saying that social software doesn't belong in large enterprise; in fact I strongly believe the opposite. But all of the above means that social software rarely stands a chance of getting through the door in the first place. And getting through the door is just one hurdle: the biggest one is often the corporate culture itself. Social software has the potential to be revolutionary, and can change the very fabric of the underlying corporate culture, moving some businesses from a 'silo-ed', one-way, up-the-chain communication style, to an open, networked, free-flowing one. This cannot happen overnight, and it cannot happen without active engagement from people up and down the chain. And it's the scale that's problematic: it's a lot harder to turn an aircraft carrier than it is to turn a rowboat, especially when you're dealing with an intangible thing like attitudes and internal culture.

I'm optimistic that we are at the start of a sea-change in large enterprise, as the Baseline article indicates - but it's going to take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get us there.