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The past couple of weeks has been pretty much business as usual in the exciting world of communication technology: product innovations (e.g. Google’s cool new instant search function or Apple’s new iPod line); new applications with huge potential (e.g. alliance of Chatter with Seesmic social platforms); competitive jockeying pushing companies to building a better “mousetrap” (e.g. Google joining foursquare and others in the location game). Outside corporate firewalls, it’s a fascinating cycle of restless creativity, new technology, cutthroat competition and strategic soul-searching…with huge benefits for consumers and businesses eager to leverage the new technology. It’s easier (and more exciting) than ever for individuals – and even networks of peers or colleagues – to stay informed, communicate, share ideas or advice, be productive…or just be entertained.
The contrast between this fertile, dynamic environment and life behind corporate firewalls is striking – and the gap may be getting bigger. While it’s true that some companies (particularly smaller organizations or the usual suspects in the technology field) are forward-thinking and courageous when it comes to technology, which translates into integrated social media programs that seek to bridge the potential divide between external and internal programs, based on my personal experience most are operating in a world closer to 1984 than 2010. (I’m going on personal experience and anecdotal data here…It’s tough to find updated stats that differentiate social media within the Enterprise from external activities, but this report is useful context.) When I was at Dell, for example, they intentionally leveraged their external platforms (notably Direct2Dell blog and IdeaStorm crowd-sourcing) with their PR and customer service systems within the organization, ensuring that the feedback and issues raised in the blogosphere were incorporated and addressed within the organization. The bridge between external and internal was wide open, so to speak.
Most of what I’ve seen, alas, is far from this ideal. Forget trying to find companies that use location-based applications within the firewall, for example, which would seem to offer huge potential to make internal communication more local and relevant. Many companies are still working on (or thinking about) basic networking tools or blogging platforms – likely still engaged in discussions about risk vs. reward. And in terms of technology devices, I can count on one hand companies that use smart phones or advanced portable devices (like the iPad or netbooks) with their staff – at least beyond senior executives – which seriously hampers their ability to leverage the advancements in mobility, wireless ubiquity and delivery of rich content. For most organizations, the intranet is their trojan horse for communication technology inside the firewall – for better or for worse. (Check out this blog post for another perspective on Enterprise 2.0 progress.) Some are able to introduce and use pretty advanced tools through new CMS platforms (the latest version of SharePoint has enough features to fulfill most basic networking and collaboration needs), but dramatic changes typically occur when companies get plug-and-play enterprise platforms that introduce new capabilities – such as Jive, Yammer or BrightIdea. And even with companies dabbling in pretty advanced technology, the odds are high that their internal efforts are lagging behind their marketing or PR activities (and tools) and/or not fully aligned.
The reasons for this reluctance and hesitation have been well covered – resources, legal risk, culture, inertia, ignorance – and there is merit to some of these explanations. And I would never advocate just jumping in head first…introducing technology for its own sake, without a robust strategy and business imperative. But the greater risk to organizations is that their archaic internal communication programs become so detached from external progress than they become totally irrelevant. And it won’t be just the younger workers – raised in an ecosystem on information on demand and advanced social media – who will get disillusioned and disinterested. It’s time for internal communication leaders and professional to start with a blank slate to (with apologies to Robin Williams) seize the day and utilize the incredible technological power inherent in the new devices and programs.