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Time will tell if social media platforms will work at work

An army of technology vendors is scrambling to sell you enterprise social media platforms, as I discovered in my reporting for a pair of stories on this week on enterprise collaboration. These platforms aim to add a social element to business applications, either “layered” over the many applications we use for work (Socialtext and IBM’s strategy, for example) or embedded in applications ( Inc.’s Chatter, for example).

Underpinned by a lightweight Web-oriented architecture, enterprise social media platforms aim to get people to work across the proverbial silos of the modern corporation. Twitter-like “activity streams,” jangling with metadata, will not only advertise what you are doing, but also expose your goings-on to others — and others’ application activity to you. Suddenly, for example, a person in the professional services group will be able to retrieve information from the sales group.

The punch line: “What we see is that as companies deploy social software, people who hoard information are at a disadvantage to those who share,” said Ross Mayfield, president and co-founder of Socialtext Inc., the Palo Alto-based maker of business social software.

As president of one of the leading enterprise social software companies in this young business area, Mayfield has reasons not to be a naysayer, of course. But this way of working comes with legitimate security issues, and perhaps social ones as well.

Breaking down silos is fine as long as all the silos are on the same farm: the company. But what prevents similar sharing between enterprising members of different companies? Especially if this information provides advantages to the sharers, relative to their more cloistered comrades?

As a business reporter for many years before I started covering IT, I’m skeptical that this will work, even within the confines of the “You’re OK, I’m OK” culture we give lip service to now.

Social media platforms in the enterprise rewrite the rules of competition — not to mention the divide-and-conquer mentality typical of many managers. And I am not talking just about the ruthless tactics used to squelch an outside competitor; I’m also talking about the ruthless intramural competition that permeates the all-for-one-and-one-for-all teams that are supposed to pull together for the good of the corporation.

Business is bellicose. The CEO of one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country, a nun, pointed out to me once that one needn’t look any further than the war-like language that permeates business discourse — from bullet points to the blatant crushing the competition rallying cries of annual meetings — to see that muscle — not sharing — is the virtue extolled at the top.

Maybe a new generation will rewrite the language of work. I read just this week about one study that found students who tweeted in class did better than those who didn’t. (Are you tweeting me?) But that’s a story for another post.

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