Leading companies have passed through three distinct phases of organizational usage. What should we learn from them?
Since the dawn of the social-technology era, executives have recognized the potential of blogs, wikis, and social networks to strengthen lines of company communication and collaboration, and to invigorate knowledge sharing. Many leaders have understood that by harnessing the creativity and capabilities of internal and external stakeholders, they can boost organizational effectiveness and potentially improve strategic direction setting. But they have also found that spreading the use of these new technologies across the organization requires time to overcome cultural resistance and to absorb the lessons of early successes and failures. Social technologies, after all, raise new sensitivities, seeking to breach organizational walls and instill more collaborative mind-sets.
McKinsey’s long-running research into enterprise use of social technologies provides a unique vantage point for examining the nature and pace of this evolution. Surveys of more than 2,700 global executives over each of the last ten years have probed technology diffusion within organizations and the patterns of technology adoption.
Our review of survey data spanning the years 2005 to 2015 suggests three distinct, progressively more sophisticated phases of usage. Companies in our sample began with trial-and-error applications—for example, using social platforms such as YouTube to expand their marketing mix to attract younger consumers. They then switched their focus to fostering collaboration. Most recently, some have deployed social technologies to catalyze the cocreation of strategy. Across this spectrum, we also found that companies shifted the mix of technologies and expanded the terrain of application.
Exhibit 1 tracks how companies’ choice of social tools, the boundaries of their usage, and the benefits of applying them have evolved over the period. We found that overall adoption is plateauing. (McKinsey’s Jacques Bughin, using this longitudinal data, described a similar pattern for “Enterprise 2.0” tools in a 2015 Quarterly article. )
Social-networking sites (such as Facebook and LinkedIn) and microblogging platforms (such as Twitter and Yammer) remain the tools of choice in the pursuit of broad communication and collaboration. After an initial spate of enthusiasm, the adoption of blogging as a leadership-messaging tool leveled off. Wikis have had less impact historically, and their use has stalled. We also found clear evidence that social networks have expanded and become better integrated, with companies first moving to interact with customers, then creating networks linking both employees and outside stakeholders.
Finally, we observed benefits from adoption. The most widespread was greater access to knowledge and to experts within and outside the enterprise. More recently, companies have achieved cost reductions—for example, through more efficient internal communications and the use of video and knowledge-sharing platforms to engage with customers remotely rather than traveling to see them. The multiplication of knowledge channels drove process improvements such as faster time to market and improved product and service quality.
As these technology choices and capabilities evolved, we found that they defined three periods of usage. This evolution is dynamic, with some companies at the leading edge and others catching up (Exhibit 2).