Does a decline in social media use really mean companies are retrenching on social?

I’ve been rereading some great articles and reports from 2013, and one set of statistics caught my eye from the Deloitte report called The Burdens Of The Past, by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, Tamara Samoylova, and Matt Frost. In a figure that shows ‘inter-firm knowledge flows’ nearly every sort of activity being measured fell precipitously in 2012 relative to earlier years, with the exception of email alerts and webcasts:


The authors circled the declined of social media, and singled that out as an indicator of businesses being involved in a sort of retrenchment against new ways of doing things:

In 2012, participation in work-related online forums, professional and community organizations, and social media networks decreased from their 2011 levels. Corporate social media usage, in fact, is lower in 2012 than it was in 2009, with participation rates in social media below 20 percent across most levels of the organization (figure 9)—including middle management (18 percent), lower-level management (13 percent), and non-management (9 percent).

Given the increased availability of knowledge-sharing tools and many companies’ expressed intent to deploy them, these results seem surprising. After all, in a July 2013 Deloitte and MIT Sloan Management Review report, executives across all industries indicated that they considered social business to be important. Numerous organizations have demonstrated how social media can help workers resolve exceptions, share practices, crowdsource solutions, and discover expertise wherever it resides. So why has its adoption been so slow at many companies? Executives in the Deloitte-MIT Sloan Management study cited barriers such as the absence of an overall strategy and the lack of a proven business case. But we suspect that a more fundamental force may be at work: the historical value accorded to efficiency and controllability by businesses accustomed to a less changeable, less transparent world.

But if you connect this with the next chart in the report, a different picture begins to emerge.


The wholesale move onto companion devices — smartphones, tablets, and soon wearables — is perhaps the missing puzzle piece. Note that the categories in the first chart above do not account for texting or chat apps on mobile devices.

My bet is that the time that people formerly spent on PCs, or in more formal face-to-face activities like lunch meetings, community organizations and conferences, are being replaced by informal texting and web chat. And perhaps this is also an aspect of the third way of work: people will make their own decisions about how to communicate and share, and not rely on  the company to supply approved tools. As I said earlier this year, we now dig our own holes, and sharpen our own shovels.

This doesn’t moderate all the of the possible negatives that come from a decline in corporate social media use, if in fact that is happening, but on the other hand it lines up with my sense that people are organically applying the same sorts of communications tool they use outside of work inside as well.

Relevant Analyst
Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

Managing Director Gigaom Research

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