NASA's internal social network was a flop. Here's how to make sure yours isn't

Credit: Matthew Simantov via Flickr

The saga of NASA's failed internal social network, Spacebook, is fascinating.

Lampooned by Steven Colbert this spring, the service was intended to leverage social media as collaborative tool among NASA employees and contractors. It failed to gain any real traction. When NASA decommissioned it, only 14 people were logging into Spacebook on weekdays and no one was using it in off hours. The termination email encouraged users to move to Yammer, which NASA had implemented as an alternative social network.

NASA has access to an immense range of technologies and brilliant people. NASA has captured the hearts and minds of people all over the world for more than half a century and pioneered missions that will go down in history as the beginning of a new chapter in the human storyline. Yet the agency couldn't figure out how to encourage its own staff to collaborate in a social realm without outside help.

There's a lesson in there for every organization looking to develop a social network for its employees. Even if you get the technology and the user experience down, and even if you use established products like Yammer or Jive, your social network could be a big flop. Worse, it could turn into a big joke.

At the heart of it, an enterprise social network succeeds or fails based on a company's corporate culture and how well a social network taps into it.

That's why startups often reap the most reward from enterprise social networks. The high energy, the desire to brainstorm, the sense that the company and its mission make working there more than just a job, the need to collaborate closely because there are a thousand tasks to finish and only a handful of people -- all of that creates a culture that thrives on a social network.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, consider a state agency and its culture. To really make it the complete antithesis of a startup, envision the DMV. The employees have very specific job roles, most of them have been doing those jobs for years, there isn't a lot of need for collaboration, the forms they use change very little, and they answer the same questions and process the same information one day after the next.

Where a startup thrives on social interaction, discussion, and collaboration, our imaginary DMV doesn't. If a social network is provided and its use is encouraged or required for daily work, it's apt to seem like another job requirement or a burden. Employees will probably ignore it.

This doesn't mean that a DMV social network has to be a failure. Some employees might use it to organize lunches, share baby pictures, advertise fundraisers for the schools or little leagues of their kids, or maybe run a fantasy sports league or Super Bowl pool. Those casual activities actually do support  formation of social bonds. This may not deliver more tangible results than cake on each employee's birthday, but it supports the social bonds and user experience appropriate to that DMV office.

Try to create a startup's social experience at the DMV and you'll probably have an utter failure.

Truly understanding the corporate culture as it exists  -- and not as one might like to imagine it becoming  -- is a big part of hitting the right notes when developing a social collaboration system for employees. A social network can help nudge a corporate culture in a new direction. But it will never happen on day one.  

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