The Social Web: Yesterday's Technology Mavericks Take Note

By Hank Marquis

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A recent Gatner poll, Social Media Cannot Deliver Business Value If Employees Are Denied Access  asked 1400 CIO's whether or not they blocked access to the social web (generic term for social media and social networking.) The results are familiar and shocking at the same time. Over half (54%) say that social web is totally prohibited. Nineteen percent (19%) permitted access for business use only and just 10% allow it for personal use.

Well, there they go again. Having worked in IT for almost 30 years, this looks very familiar. In the early 1980's I was a recently promoted central office manager running a busy central office for MCI Telecommunications in New York City. Our MIS group (what the people running information and communications technology for internal use was called in those days) did not want me (and those revolutionaries like me) to have a personal computer. Everything I needed I was supposed to get form MIS. I could order reports, have them arrive in a box outside my office door days or weeks later (when the data was pretty much useless) and so on. You get the idea.

Well, we all know what happened there. The distributed computing revolutionaries (um, that would be us ... right?) took over information technology and MIS is now just another silo. The Old Guard lost its throne. "The king is dead! Long live the king!" was the catch phrase of the Late '80s and early '90s. (To their credit, MCI mail arrived on the scene toward the mid-'80s with one of the first publically available email systems. I had the pleasure of meeting with Vint Cerf for breakfast one morning in 1985 to talk about the concept, but that's another story.)

Distributed computing totally changed the face of the world as not many things have. Email is something many companies cannot operate without, and non-IT personnel in many cases now do ad hoc reporting on data. The king is dead! Long live the king!

Fast-forward to the early 1990's, the dawn of real Internet awareness. I was working as a networking consultant to the IT department (that was its name, MIS long since relegated to a quite corner, important, but not in charge) at one of the worlds largest insurance companies located in Hartford, Conn. The IT director was adamant about shutting down Internet access to the desktop. I remember his quote (more or less) "There is no need for Internet access to the desktop. The Internet is a waste of time." We did everything we could at every layer―desktop, protocol, routing, etc.―to prevent access.

And again, we know what happened there. You are after all, no doubt reading this via the Internet, and probably sitting in your office, at work … Hmmm.

Jumping ahead to the early 2000's, one of the biggest "security holes" we were trying to patch as an industry was Instant Messaging. IM was considered a threat to corporate security, secrets would be revealed, lawsuits would follow, the sky would fall … "The end is near! Plug those security holes, block those ports!" And, yet again, we know how that one went too. Most workers today have Internet access, and most IT departments (they’re still called that, but for how long?) not only allow IM, they even offer an approved IM client as part of the desktop.

So, here we are at the end of 2009 and along comes Gartner's insightful piece on blocking the social web ... Sigh ... the more things change, right?

The thing I find most interesting is that the people running IT today were the revolutionaries of the '80s and 90's! They toppled the old regime, and became what they hated most: blockers of innovation, gatekeepers who know what's best, an established regime desperately trying to hang on to power in the face of a revolution.

When will our beloved profession learn?

The social web is not just Twitter or FaceBook or LinkedIn. The social web is not a waste of time, and the social web is needed. The term social web describes a real-time information ecosystem designed to produce real value fast. Social media is the information―opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives―people create for the purpose of sharing with others. Social networking is the use of tools to create a community of people used to validate, filter and consume social media. The community validates and filters social media for a purpose, and that purpose is the creation of value.

Open source software is an excellent example of the value the social web can bring. By updating the definition of open source from homepage of opensource.org we get: "The social web is a means to harness the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process. The promise of the social web is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, and lower cost." While the wording may have changed, the spirit and meaning stay the same.

Who doesn't want that?

IT should realize the value of the social web. Want to really innovate? Want innovation that helps drive sales (what business really wants us to do)? Consider IT sponsoring social web initiatives instead of blocking them.

I know there are those of you who right now say, Hank doesn’t understand our ________ [situation, predicament, etc.] We can't be transparent due to ______ [reputation, business model, etc.] Our market is different, we are subject to ______. [this or that law, regulation, etc.]

I do understand, and if you can't innovate with the public social web, why not create an internal or private social web? If you take the private route, take the time to understand what social web really means. I'll give you a hint: its not your intranet with a bulletin board …

Hank Marquis is practice leader for Business Service Management at Global Knowledge. You can reach Hank at hank.marquis@globalknowledge.com.

(Oh, to be fair, the last I heard Gartner blocks access to social web.)