I was prompted to write this by tonight’s Social Workplace Twitter chat which is discussing enterprise social networks.

The watercooler chat has come to epitomise the social, informal sharing that goes on in organisations and I have heard many, many people talk about harnessing these watercooler conversations to the wider the benefit of the business.

This is not a new concept and social tools have been around for a while to enable watercooler-type chats to be amplified within corporate firewalls.

But do these type of chats really get amplified and would you want them to be? I don’t know the answer, by the way. I do know that it is quite a leap from a watercooler chat, which tends to be quite private ie one to one or one to two/three and which can be gossipy ie about colleagues to talking (publishing) across teams and the wider organisation using social tools.

What struck me when we started using enterprise social network tool Yammer when I was working at publisher Reed Business Information was that:

None of these observations were surprising:

The emerging use of Yammer didn’t really reflect watercooler chats. You wouldn’t gossip publicly in front of all your colleagues, would you?

But enterprise social tools do open up new ways for colleagues to chat and share which are really useful for the organisation. My points above might seem a bit negative when in fact there were lots of positives too – what with the app, I was connected to the network easily. Colleagues would share their expertise thereby showing others who was good to talk to.

There is a big difference between gossip and useful info that is worth sharing across the business. I think businesses worry about the gossip when they don’t need to. It happens and it always will – it’s all on email, instant messenger, Twitter direct messages, Facebook messaging etc. If it is inappropriate and goes public then it needs to be dealt with. And that is an opportunity to learn together as well.

By trusting employees to use social tools, organisations will start to see how they are used and what works and what doesn’t – an important consideration if you are about to invest in an enterprise ‘social’ solution. Then build on what works. This takes time – time for colleagues to learn about the tools, what they might get out of using them and to get comfortable. From this will come the advocates and early adopters who are so important in helping grow interest and engagement.

If communication has been via email mostly – the default way of online communication being one to one – then it is a big shift to go open on a network visible to all. Clearly, private one to one messaging is still a neccesity.

At first, there is every chance the network/social platform will mirror the structure/culture of the organisation but by giving colleagues space to try out different ways of using the tools new ways of doing things may emerge.

At the very least, networks provide everyone with a wider view of the organisation and who is who and who does what and what is going on (views of activity streams, for example). This enables everyone to understand more about how the organisation works. Just at this level these tools have an enormous value.

But all this does challenge the notion of control within the enterprise. Is that scary or exciting?