In a fascinating post yesterday, Ten top issues in adopting enterprise social computing, ZDNet’s Enterprise Web 2.0 blogger Dion Hinchcliffe has been reviewing some of the reasons why businesses have yet to fully embrace social media. This followed a recent report that showed a positive correlation between social media engagement and corporate financial performance, but – despite such evidence and numerous case studies – there remain many businesses who have yet to start the adoption process.
This is, in my experience, probably even more the case in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector. The debates about social media also echo debates I had while advocating the introduction of web-based construction collaboration tools – from the late 1990s, I spent ten years promoting applications based on Software-as-a-Service (SaaS, and its earlier manifestation, ASP or application service provision, aka computing ‘in the cloud’) to an innately conservative industry of construction clients, contractors, consultants and suppliers. With many social media solutions also offered on a SaaS basis, I have therefore assessed Dion’s ideas against this background.
Ten top issues with social computing in AEC businesses
- Lack of social media literacy amongst workers. – I believe we are still at an early stage of adoption in the AEC sector, with only a few dedicated individuals becoming really social media-savvy. Just as I found in promoting collaboration technologies, take-up of blogs, wikis, social networks, bookmarking, content-sharing, etc, is still low, perhaps because, for many AEC professionals, improving collaboration and sharing information with people is sometimes the last thing companies want their staff to do! If you’ve read the UK construction trade press recently, some major UK clients (BAA and Network Rail among them) are supposedly turning their back on collaborative approaches to project delivery; some industry people will use this as an excuse to revert to old, closed, silo-based “information is power”-type attitudes. Moreover, the current recession (with its attendant lay-offs, pay-cuts, etc) makes it less likely that AEC people will be trained or have time to learn ‘netiquette’ tactics, let alone to develop strategies for maximising the value of social media.
- A perception that social tools won’t work well in a particular industry. – (“The day a computer can lay bricks, is the day I f*** off out of the industry!” – see post). What is so different about construction that it makes people think the industry won’t benefit from social media? As this blog has shown, there are AEC firms that are using Wikis, blogs and Twitter corporately, and many AEC professionals are routinely using Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Flickr and online communities as part of their daily communications. Dion says: “it’s still surprisingly common to encounter a culture of resistance (though often to change in general…) in organizations that … are highly specialized, or are unusually late adopters of technology.” This fits with my experience too: many construction businesses were prone to inertia, to ‘not-invented-here syndrome‘, and while not exactly ‘techno-phobic’ can often be described as ‘laggards‘ when it comes to deploying new technologies.
- Social software is still perceived as too risky to use for core business activities. – I heard this objection a lot in selling SaaS applications too. Particularly in the early 2000s, there was a view that information about a construction project was too sensitive to be trusted to an online system, and that, in any case, the technologies had no track record. Both arguments were quickly disproved, of course (though they are still encountered). Corporate use of SaaS-based collaboration systems proved not only to be secure but also more auditable than existing systems, and the early adopters of ‘extranets’ soon became converts who wanted to use the systems on subsequent projects. I reckon the same will happen with social media tools. So long as security and reliability concerns are tackled, the generic business benefits of faster decision-making, better knowledge management, improved access to data and/or people, etc, will soon become clear to the early adopters, and – over time – social media will become just another part of construction industry communications.
- Can’t get enough senior executives engaged with social tools. – Many construction businesses have a heavy top-down, command-and-control culture, and their senior people are often the least likely to embrace new technologies, even though they may be the individuals most likely to benefit from improved access to information. In an information-dependent industry where networks of multidisciplinary professionals drawn from multiple, geographically dispersed organisations are temporarily assembled to work on construction projects, it was perhaps surprising that construction executives hadn’t been screaming for technologies – like SaaS-based collaboration – that could improve operational efficiencies. I see social media delivering similar benefits against that same background of silos and fragmented team-working. And if those people in operational roles can demonstrate the value of new tools, including social media, then perhaps senior executive scepticism and inertia can be overcome, maybe even transformed into positive sponsorship and leadership.
- There is vapor lock between IT and the social computing initiative. – Here, Dion talks about the ‘IT/business divide’. SaaS vendors experienced similar tensions. IT directors were suspicious of externally hosted solutions developed by third parties, perhaps fearing that they might prove the ‘thin end of the wedge’ and lead to a reduced role for them and their department. At the same time, SaaS vendors also needed to ensure that their solutions could interface with existing internal applications, data, people and processes. While small businesses might find it easy to adopt some social media tools, enterprise-standard IT requirements for interoperability, security and compliance may require some re-engineering of tools to fit corporate needs. Ensuring that social media tools are appropriate to the particular needs of construction professionals is also important – I’m encouraged that firms such as Kalexo (post) and Asite (post) are looking at integrating Web 2.0 approaches as part of their collaboration platforms.
- Need to prove ROI before there will be support for social software. – With SaaS, it was relatively straightforward to calculate the tangible savings that arose from replacing paper-based communication processes with electronic information management systems (we tended to find that the paper, printing, copying, distribution and storage savings alone more than paid for the cost of the collaboration platform). There were also many intangible savings that multiplied the benefits many times over (elimination of re-work, improved information quality, faster reporting, easier dispute resolution, etc). Hopefully, as AEC organisations begin to measure the impacts of social media tools, more case studies will emerge demonstrating a clear Return on Investment, ROI. I expect we will see growing evidence of firms identifying benefits, eg: improved recruitment and retention of staff, better knowledge management, increased sales leads, idea generation, improved customer/community/tenant/occupier relations, etc.
- Security concerns are holding up pilot projects/adoption plans. – As previously mentioned, security was a big issue for the early SaaS vendors, and it wasn’t just a test of the technologies, it also related to the needs of organisations to ensure they put the appropriate people and procedures into place. Here, I think social media adoption by AEC organisations demands the development and enforcement of effective employee social media policies governing the who, what, where, when, why and how of using social tools. Fortunately, other organisation such as the BBC and the Civil Service are already a long way down this road, so best practice is already beginning to emerge.
- The needs around community management have come as a surprise. – In many ways, social media tools are not replacing existing communication channels – they are augmenting them. And as the number of channels has increased so too has the task of managing those channels. In a heavily cost-conscious industry like construction (even more so during a recession), this expansion is posing new challenges on the resources devoted to managing an an organisation’s communications. AEC businesses will need to look at the resources devoted to managing the communities with which they interact through social media, and it will take time for best practices in community management to emerge. However, we already have specialist community managers being appointed within some of our specialist trade and technical media (as formerly print-focused publications embrace online opportunities), and the PR and marketing professions are also having to adapt and expand their skillsets.
- Difficulties sustaining external engagement. – The afore-mentioned top-down, command-and-control culture in some organisations may result in social media initiatives that fail. Successful online communities often ‘emerge’ as bottom-up initiatives created by employees, fans, users, customers, etc. This can pose a challenge to conventional corporate communications – there is no guarantee that “if you build it, they will come” or that “if they come, they will do or say what you want“. Again, sensitive community management is going to be needed, and it will take time for businesses to learn which approaches work best to achieve optimum levels of engagement.
- Struggling to survive due to unexpected success. – In a business-to-business world like the AEC sector, enterprise social computing hasn’t yet taken off, so we have the advantage of being able to watch and learn from early successes in other markets, and to take a more measured approach with our current initiatives. Assuming that we have tackled most of the issues above (employee education, industry specificity, leadership, ROI, policies, responsibility, etc), then AEC organisations could ‘hit the ground’ running with effective strategies to take full advantage of the opportunities presented by social media.