Social networking is hot, and it’s smart to think about how your organization might use it to generate benefit equal to the market hype. As you develop your social technology strategy, it’s particularly important to steer clear of a fallacy of thought that often creeps into technology strategies for enterprise communication and collaboration.

Oftentimes, an enterprise social strategy, like enterprise collaboration strategies before them, will have among its goals a phrase suggesting that the technology should “change the way people communicate.” Superficially, this phrase may accurately describe part of the effect, but at a more fundamental level, it violates a very important change management principle. To make my point, I’ll back up and start with a little history.

I used to communicate via paper memos and phone calls, but it was cumbersome and time-consuming. Email has come to replace much of that. So, the “way I communicate” has changed, right? On the face of it, yes, but, looking more closely, not really, at least not at first. Compared to my “before email” days, I still communicate the same types of things with the same kinds of people — only email made these communications easier (for the most part). I started using email because (1) it could improve the existing way I communicated and (2) it fit my work and life context — it was just a new program to use on my handy desktop PC. Once email became part of my context, I realized that I could use it for communications that were too costly before. At this point, it did, to a degree, change the way I communicate.

Collaboration technologies have been around for at least 20 years but, unlike the introduction of email, many enterprise collaboration strategies have struggled (and I believe still struggle) to achieve successful adoption. The reason? A strategic fallacy: Believing that, “Our people need to and should collaborate” or maybe “online discussion groups thrive, so they surely will do well in our enterprise,” tech leaders made a bad strategic assumption: They thought that the availability of a collaboration tool would change the way people communicate. They thought should was sufficient to ensure would. But, the context in the enterprise is different from that of online discussion groups. I believe key reasons for early success of online discussions included (1) there was a latent desire: for personal passions, people want to spend lots of time sifting through long discussion threads, (2) there was a latent need: online discussions let people with a given passion connect with others spread around the world, and (3) there was a context with critical mass: the body of interested people was large enough that there was always someone talking. In an enterprise context, these types of factors don’t always come together — in other words, the enterprise collaboration strategy doesn’t match the latent ways in which people naturally want to and do collaborate.

Public social networking (think “Facebook” as the quintessential example) is successful because, like email, (1) it addressed and accelerated latent ways that people naturally want to and do communicate and collaborate and (2) it fits naturally into peoples’ usage context. In other words, it fits with and improves what they already want to do. After social networking becomes part of the context, it may then build on itself to catalyze real change in communication styles and patterns. Here's an interesting tidbit: For some high school students I know, wall posts in Facebook replaced email. But then, when they got into college, they started using email again because the school sent emails that the students had best pay attention to. Their context changed, causing their use of email to revert to old patterns.

Now, back to your enterprise strategy for social technologies: It is a fallacy to think that any technology you introduce will “change the way people communicate.” People will communicate in the way that they find most natural to do what they want to do. Instead, think of it this way: If you place the right tools into the right usage context to naturally relieve latent communication pressures, people will use it. You won’t have to badger people into using the strategy that you thought was just what they needed. Thus, the first and foremost priority for your social technology strategy (or any part of your broader business communication strategy) is to research and discover latent communication, collaboration, and networking pressures, needs, and requirements. Only then you can identify how any communication technology, social or otherwise, fits the bill.

So, as you build your strategy for social technologies, any verbiage about “change the way people communicate” should be properly contextualized as a merely a surface-level thing, at least at first. Once in place, the new technology becomes part of the context, and then it may indeed catalyze changes in the way people communicate.

What are some of the latent communication pressures and contexts for which you’ve seen an enterprise social technology strategy hit the mark?