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As companies go through their social business journey, there are several “truths” about their use of social media that are not necessarily observed in real life, but still get treated as dogma, as if social technologies were so special and enigmatic that deserve a quasi-religious status. In this post, I’ll elect my top 5 social business myths, but of course, lists shouldn’t be dogmatic either: the intent of this post is just to raise awareness that statements are not truer just because they are repeated a lot.

Here is my top 5 list:

1. Your organization MUST “do social” to be successful in business

Well, not really, or at least, not always. One of the most successful corporations in the world right now, Apple Inc., is known for a lot of things, but definitely not for their use of social media. You can be very successful in business without being a star in the social media pantheon. Haydn Shaughnessy wrote about this at the Forbes website a few weeks ago: Does Apple’s Success Prove Social Media Doesn’t Really Matter? Naturally, this is not to say that social media is irrelevant. But it’s definitely not a panacea, and there are several paths to success that are not “social”. A quick look at the top companies in the world by market capitalization clearly show that being a social media wizard is not necessarily the recipe for winning in the marketplace.

2. Information wants to be free

This slogan sounds really cool and is admittedly very catchy, but it is as dogmatic as a statement can be. Information, of course, does not “want” anything by itself, and it’s an umbrella term that includes all sorts of items. Would it make sense if we say: “Things want to be free”? You can argue that some things are better kept free, such as the air we breathe, the oceans, and common urban spaces. Others are better off being very well protected, such as the Mona Lisa or the Rosetta Stone. And there are all sorts of items in-between, for which several factors control how widely or narrowly distributed they can be. The fact that digital information is so easy to copy and distribute through social media does not mean that it must be delivered everywhere. The same way that viruses (the DNA- and RNA-based ones) can be easily spread, but we don’t want that to happen for obvious reasons, there is plenty of information that must be carefully controlled and distributed. Social business platforms must provide mechanisms to allow a fine grained mapping of data classification to access controls.

3. Generation Y “gets” social, while boomers and traditionalists don’t

That may be a valid generalization when it comes to Twitter and Facebook, but it does not necessarily apply to the use of social media as a business tool for communication or collaboration. In fact, my personal observation is that, in several organizations, the middle of the pack, those between 30 and 50, are the major drivers of social business adoption, and there will be a significant number of boomers and traditionalists also championing the cause. Being able to tweet and use Facebook on a personal level not always correlate to being active or influential in a corporate social network. Often the opposite happens: some people who never used Facebook, Twitter or FourSquare become avid social bees in enterprise social platforms, while others who tweet their lives away barely make a dent in the online social ranks within a business organization.

4. Adoption will follow the 90-9-1 pattern

Understanding participation inequality is key when dealing with social networks, and the so-called 1% rule plays an important role in communicating that concept. But taking it literally does not help anybody. This works similar to the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule. The intent is to highlight that activity is unevenly distributed over a population, but not expected to match precise percentages to a tee. It should never be used as a benchmark for success or failure. A social site may have 99% of lurkers and 0.1% of power contributors and still be wildly successful. Wikipedia stats for their English language site indicate that they have 22 editors for every million users (0.0022%). Being the 6th most popular website in the world, Wikipedia is hardly a failure, but still is several orders of magnitude worse than the 1% rule. Likewise, your corporate social networking may be wildly popular in terms of participation, but if most of the conversations there are about your employees’ cats and dogs, Justin Bieber, and the local sports team, you might have adoption alright, but might not be getting meaningful business results from your investment.

5. My email inbox will shrink thanks to the use of a Social Business Platform

Perhaps that will happen one day, but that’s a dream unlikely to be realized any time soon. Several factors are at play here. Social Business Platforms will expand the reach of your personal network, so more people will communicate with you, and many will still do that via email. Also, depending on how you configure your notifications, the social platform may overwhelm your inbox with all sorts of messages that you don’t necessarily care about. A social media “wall” was never intended to be your inbox. If you treat it as such, you’ll probably be worse off and will miss those good old email days before the dawn of social business. The actual benefits brought by using the social platform instead of email are re-use of effort (write once, get read many times) and persistence (people come and go, but their contributions stay), not necessarily a thinner inbox.

You might or might not agree with the list above, and your top 5 myths might be very different from the ones I selected. The important thing to keep in mind is that adopting a social business strategy should not require you to check your brain at the door: asking fair questions and challenging bullish statements is a must for a balanced approach that will maximize your chances of success.

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Aaron Kim

About Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim currently heads the Digital Social Collaboration Centre of Excellence at RBC. In the past, he tried his hand as solutions architect, Basel II consultant, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator, and environmental biologist. He’s married to Tania and they have a son, Lucas.

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