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Monday, August 10, 2009

Social Software Adoption

You can find all sorts of interesting resources via eLearning Learning around Adoption.  Not surprising, the terms most closely associated with Adoption are Adoption of Social Software and Adoption of Enterprise 2.0.  There are some great resources on this such as:

Adoption Pendulum

As I do presentations where I discuss Tools and Methods for Knowledge Work, I find myself wondering about adoption levels of these tools, and the following pendulum definitely describes how my feelings swing back and forth:


Social Software Deployment Levels

Over the past few years, there's definitely been greater deployment of social software in the Enterprise.  Dion Hinchcliffe declared 2009 - The year of the shift to Enterprise 2.0.  Reported numbers vary widely …


Despite the novelty of the technologies (only 3 years old), the percentage penetration is very high, about half of all enterprises globally.

Survey Results: Enterprise 2.0 Adoption:

98% of those surveyed are using Enterprise 2.0 technologies for internal communication and collaboration within their company. The most popular technologies used are instant messaging (74%), wikis and team workspaces (67%), and blogs (51%).

And my personal experience is that it's pretty rare to run into an organization that is not at least planning on adopting some social software solutions.  And I'm certainly seeing a lot of SharePoint.

Deployment vs. Adoption

But it's important to keep in mind that deployment of social software does not mean adoption / use.  A new report by web usability guru Jakob Nielsen tells us:

A main finding from our study's interviews is that most companies are not very far along in a wholesale adoption of Web 2.0 technologies.

But the same report tells us:

Social software is not a trend that can be ignored. It's affecting fundamental change in how people expect to communicate, both with each other and the companies they do business with.

Email Comparison

Often people cite the adoption of email as a technology adoption cycle with the claim that social software will follow a similar path.  Certainly, email went through a bit of a similar early pattern where there was sporadic adoption, lots of debate, executives that had their secretaries (they were not administrative assistants at the time) print their email and put it in their inbox (and I mean an actual inbox). 

Eventual adoption of email was a certainty.  Once enough people in the organization adopted email, it was very hard for any individual to avoid adopting it.  It would just be too inefficient not to adopt it.  You were somewhat forced into learning the skills required.  Typing, basic computer use, email etiquette.  Of course, this was over the course of several years.

Distributed Content Editing

In thinking about various social software, I'm not so sure that I believe that adoption is nearly so neat.  Some technologies seem like they will reach tipping points in organizations where resistance will become hard.  There will be enough people using the technology that it will reach a tipping point where you pretty much have to adopt it.  An example of that is the adoption of Distributed Content Editing via an agreed to technology such as Wiki, Shared SharePoint Documents, Google Docs, etc.

Once a work team agrees that will be how they collaborate on a given piece of content, it becomes very inefficient for an individual within the team to not adopt the same technology.  Sending a Word document in an email when there's a collaboratively editable version of the content somewhere else causes enough pain that the group forces the use of the new technology through peer pressure.  Once enough people in the organization adopt that as the approach, it becomes hard for other forms to exist. 

I personally expect that the days of emailing around documents will be long forgotten.  Instead, the model shown by Google Docs with an email that alerts you to a shared document being the norm and successive alerts coming via email or RSS about changes.   You won't think of things like the location of the document (local, email attachment, network drive, SharePoint) or multiple versions in files at all.

Oh, and real-time editing with multiple authors will be standard.

Discussion Group Software Comparison

While I believe that adoption of tools for distributed content editing is a sure thing, in looking at other tools, I suspect that adoption patterns are going to be quite different.  Many of the tools that we include in the list of social software are things that may be more like discussion group software.  This software has been around for many years.  There is a network effect with the adoption of discussion groups.  If enough people in a group adopt it's use, then it becomes more valuable and progressively harder to remain a part of the group and not adopt the use of the software.

Adoption of discussion group software certainly has followed a very different path than email. 

It's pretty rare where work teams and certainly not organizations have made it the norm to adopt the software.  Instead, it's most often left up to the individual to make a personal choice about adoption and adoption level.  Lurking is considered legitimate peripheral participation.  Not reading everything is often okay.  The adoption pattern is quite different than adoption of email or collaborative content editing.

I'm wondering if there aren't quite a few of the tools that we discuss as social software that will follow this kind of adoption.  A prime example are blogs.  Blogging is somewhat a personal/network version of discussion groups.  I would guess that it will have limited adoption – but that's not to say that even with limited adoption it doesn't bring value.  In fact, part of the comparison is that discussion groups and blogging both bring value with limited adoption.

Social Networks

With this slightly different lens, I'm wondering what this means for the adoption of social networks as a means of expertise location.  If you look at what I've said above, I'm asking:

  • What's the pressure from others in the organization or work team to adopt?
  • What happens if you don't or partially adopt?

In the case of email and collaborative content editing, pressure is high and partial adoption doesn't work.

In the case of discussion groups and blogs, pressure is generally low and partial adoption is generally okay.

With social networks there will be some level of pressure to participate.  If you want to be seen as an expert in the organization, you really need to play along.  However, you can likely get away with only partial adoption.  You may not really use it as a means of finding expertise yourself.  So, while I feel there's tremendous value in social networks as a means of expertise location, I'm currently thinking that adoption is going to be a bit like adoption of LinkedIn.  Widely varying levels of participation, even for those who are registered.

Social Bookmarking

Social Bookmarking has a stronger pressure level when it's adopted by a work team.  If you are tasked with research, and you don't share what you find via a social bookmarking system, the team likely will put pressure on you to do so.  The perceived utility (PU) of social bookmarking is not that high, it's perceived ease of use (PEOU) is high and with the network effect, it would seem that social bookmarking should be something that gains widespread adoption.

However, that's not what I'm seeing out there.  Awareness of these tools is lower than other forms of social software.  IT organizations are adopting these more slowly. 

This seems like a long-term winner.  Am I missing something?


In previous looks at this, I've relied more on the traditional TAM model looking at things like Perceive Utility and Perceived Ease of Use.  What I'm talking about in this post is that we need to take into account work team and organization network effects that bring pressure as an important factor in adoption.  We also need to recognize what adoption might look like (partial).

All that said, a bit of this is crystal ball gazing.

  • What will social software use look like inside organizations in 3-5 years?
  • Where tools should IT be providing and organizations be facilitating and support?
  • Should organizations encourage adoption?

I can't say that I'm not going to swing back and forth on the pendulum a bunch more times.  I certainly am curious what people think around this.

How it Feels Sometimes

I'm sure we can all relate to this:


Mark Notess said...

A bit of data for you on social bookmarking practice in a university context: PDF of slides from my talk last spring based on some data from last fall. (Other slide formats as well as a recording of the talk are available here if you scroll down to April 8, 2009).

I found it interesting that relatively few people use social bookmarking and continue to bookmark in the browser despite using multiple computers.

Mark Sylvester said...

Tony, I am particularly intriqued with the pendulum image. So much so that I have posted it on our Testdrive site (entire blog post actually) and made sure that two clients specifically saw it. This issue of Hype v Reality ws the topic of recent conversations. In my opinion, this is the next challenge for all of us (vendors, consultants and practioners). This is taking a concerted effort on our part to make sure we are upfront in our discussions, and this post helps immensely. Thanks.

Brent McConnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tony Karrer said...

@Mark N - Thanks for the pointer to the slides. Good stuff. It is interesting to me that we've not seen a quicker transition to social bookmarking. In corporate settings, there's all kinds of value that comes from it.

@Mark S - There's something very interesting going on here where people look at the capability and it's not as immediately obvious, yet the value is there. Other than time, I'm wondering what will change things.

Brent McConnell said...

Great insight into collaboration and its adoption cycle. One thing I'd like to point out about Social Networking (aka LinkedIn) is that the network effect is focused on a relationship and not on a real object. This presents a problem for mass adoption. Adoption and community grow out of wanting to belong and having something in common. In email's case it was easy, faster communication and the collaboration took place around the content of the email. Blogs and wikis are similar in that the content is the thing around which collaboration takes place. Just creating networks of relationships may not be enough in my opinion.

Tony Karrer said...

@Brent - that's a great point about social networks vs. content networks. Having a large list of connections in LinkedIn does not necessarily equal value. It's what you do with those connections. I need to think about that a bit. Great insight.

Anonymous said...


Interesting post. I do think that adoption has to do with a sense of belonging and being part of a community. As a 5th grade science teacher I have recently joined the teacher network and been very happy with feeling part of a teacher community. This is just another example of how widespread things become when like-minded professionals can get together and discuss important topics/share resources.

- Mike L.

V Yonkers said...

I think with social software, there is a greater need for a bundle of tools that can be chosen by individuals for each situation.

While I rarely instigate online chat, I am available for my students that may want to use this tool as a form of communication. I like ning because my students can decide the format they want to use (e.g. video, discussion, blog) and it is in a central location. While I use social bookmarking and make it available to my students and colleagues, few use it to the extent I do.

What is important is for organizations to make these bundles available and support them rather than choosing the "best one." This will mean greater chance of adoption as users can choose the software that works best for them in any given situation.