Consumer networks for business use

If all the hype is to be believed then IT execs who ignore Web 2.0 collaboration technologies could be hurting their company’s bottom line. That, apparently, is the message from IT leaders and industry analysts who are convinced that Web 2.0 technologies are the real deal. And, as it’s published in CIO Magazine then it must surely be true.

The article goes on to cite examples from the real world (the one where you have real friends and real business relationships) that demonstrate just how vital these collaboration technologies are.

– A company – Serena Software – where some customers only talk to them via Facebook because they’ve “given up on e-mail because it’s such a horrendous technology”

– The same company has Facebook Fridays where “executives encourage their 900 employees in 18 countries to connect with customers, business partners and each other over the company’s group portal on the popular social networking site.”

Cisco, “where the virtual world of Linden Lab’s Second Life….is quickly becoming a preferred method of interaction among the company’s employees, business partners and customers”

– Gartner, who say that “organizations can create a mash-up, a combination of multiple applications, of their CRM database and their employees’ Facebook contacts to identify personal links among sales prospects.”

Before I talk about why I think all of the above is misguided advice, opens up the network and data to unacceptable risks as well as increasing personal risks to employees, there are actually some good words of wisdom in the same article. Accenture, for instance, who rather than using a public site, .. opted to build a social networking platform behind the company’s firewall on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to connect Accenture’s more than 170,000 employees worldwide. This is a good approach because it’s using technology specifically developed with business functionality in mind, it has strong security, and Accenture are keeping it within the boundaries of their own networks.

As soon as you start sharing company data across a public facing, consumer network that’s also being used by your children to share happy slapping videos and news about what happened down the rec on Friday night then you’ve lost the plot. Show me the business case and cost savings model that led you to believe that it’s a good idea. I’ll wager that you don’t have one, but that you’ve leapt straight in and done it anyway because of all the industry pundits telling you to do so and threatening that you’re going to get left behind if you don’t.

The example quoted above where the company uses Facebook in place of “horrendous” email is one instance where you wonder just what problem they are trying to solve and why and how swapping over to an email service provisioned by an organisation that will know all your contacts and all of their contacts, and all of the information being swapped makes it better. Are you really using Facebook’s email service to swap company information? Good grief! Remind me not to use your company if I ever need the type of product you’re selling. Just read back through their privacy policy and tell me that you still want to use Facebook in this way.

I realise that not every organisation has the deep pockets necessary to invest in tools such as SharePoint and that they will want to utilise consumer technologies to some degree. Fine, but you generally get what you pay for and if you’re getting something for free then don’t complain when you find your business profiles being used for marketing purposes by either a) a competitor or b) somebody else pretending to be you. Oh yes, and also don’t complain when the service goes down the next time that the Pakistani or some other government gets upset about some of the content.

My personal advice is to not cheapen your brand and to seriously consider the security risks associated with using consumer networks as a corporate sharepoint for email and business relationships. Embracing new technologies is one thing but long term success is built on what comes prior to the embrace: assessing the benefits, working out the costs, determining the risks etc etc. Does that make sense?