"How many people here are on Linkedin?" I asked a group of business professionals to whom I was speaking about enterprise social networking. Everyone in the group raised their hands and I felt confident that this familiarity with a common business networking tool would allow me to draw parallels to the material that I was showcasing.
I could not have been more wrong.
It was no fault of theirs, but mine for making some assumptions which I later recounted after the session and undcovered some new insights into a transition occurring in our workforce.
In the postmortem the following 2 realizations materialized
- Social networking constructs are not necessarily portable
- Established reference points play a critical role in the depth of user engagement
At first glance one might assume that these two observations exist due to someone's familiarity with social networking technology, due to what is commonly called an "age gap". A deeper examination indicates that this is not actually the case.
The term "age gap" is a loose, often inaccurate generalization that obscures the root reason for a persons unfamiliarity with a new technology and or lack of adoption and uptake. The root cause of social networking constructs running into portability barriers and people exhibiting a complete lack of engagement with social features is most accurately due to a "Perspective Gap".
Explaining and Examining Social Constructs Portability
If an individual drives a race car periodically they would likely realize that it consists of 4 wheels, a steering mechanism, gas and break peddles, as well as an engine. Imagine for a moment that, never having driven a normal car, they were asked to head to the grocery store to pick up a gallon of milk with a standard car. You would assume that they could enter the car, draw functional parallels to the race car components and therefore easily complete their errand, right?
Let's place this in the context of Enterprise 2.0. What if a user contributed to discussion forums related to gardening in their personal time and used them to learn techniques for growing tulips? What if their organization needed a way to share expertise within a particular department that struggled with any form of central knowledge management for collaborative activities? A forum – which they have used effectively on their personal time – would seem like the obvious choice, right?
In both of the above cases it appears that there in an obvious answer. In reality, especially with social networking tools, this turns out to at times be far from the case.
Bringing Social Constructs into the Enterprise
The discussion forum example above was just one idea, but others like Facebook walls and user profiles are also ideal examples of tools that people use on a frequent basis, but may struggle to understand where else the same construct might provide value in helping to solve critical business problems or enhance business. There is a difference given the vantage point of the consumer and analogies that people can draw to items already within their world.
When attempting to reference Linkedin as a good foundation to discuss business social networking – These users in fact did use linked in, but only used to to the extent of their context for similar tooling – a resume.
Other people saw it as a business networking site – they saw it as a place to put their resume.
A resume is a static item that represents work history. Linkedin is brilliant because it brings social networking to us in a professional context. This provides a living, breathing social fabrick through which to develop professional connections, share expertise with peers and gain industry recognition – something not previously available in a simple resume.
Was it that this group lacked the context to draw analogies of this functionality, as they had with their resumes? How deeply did they get involved within Linkedin beyond just establishing a profile and creating connections perhaps only in a job seeking mode?
I am not an anthropologist, but this would lead me to believe that somehow most people's ability to understand and interact with tools is based on existing experiences that they can draw reference to and making a jump to net new functionality requires a significant level of effort to be invested.
Perspective, not Age
Enterprise 2.0 adoption is not at all about age. It is about perspective. Some people posses the capability to more easily adapt concepts that may have no immediate correlation to anything already known by that individual. For those that do, it is easy to see that the fundamental building blocks for social technology are broadly applicable. For others, they most likely have not yet connected with a particular social platform that provides them with tangible value or may never have that experience. This is what defines a person's perspective on how tools can conceptually be repurposed to support needs inside their enterprise. Over time this group will increase in size, but as technology evolves our perspective will at some level always being playing catchup.