As managers and executives increasingly look at the potential of social software to improve collaboration and connectedness amongst their workers, I’ve been seeing the same old questions arise in a newer, more senior audience. Namely, why are social business tools really different from the communication tools that are already in the hands of their workforce today?

The problem of course, is that enterprises have been rolling out new IT solutions for decades, too often resulting in very limited on-the-ground adoption or unsatisfied users. If so, then will it be different with social software goes the concern (and in general with the advent of user-controlled information technology that I’m referring to as CoIT)?

Many point to the runaway growth of consumer social networks as proof that there is something significant and unique, both qualitatively and quantitatively, about the vast global impact of social media in the world today. I’ve proposed previously that it was their formation in the relentlessly competitive landscape of the Internet has led them in stepwise refinement to tap into the power laws that make highly connected networks produce the richest results.

Others have pointed out that successful social networks enable extreme ease in connecting people together and helping them share with virtually zero friction in the entire process.

Using social media for real work

While these benefits appear to translate fairly well into the enterprise, the real question is if we can successfully, broadly, and repeatably transplant the success of consumer social networks into our workplaces, for business objectives. When we are given new tools that seem to closely overlap with existing tools to get work done, we get analysis paralysis and often default back to what we know. How can we be sure we’re focusing on use of social media on something that will provide actual value?

Attributes of Traditional and Enterprise Social Media

In the end, we are the most familiar with the business tools that we use on a daily basis. Thus most of us are all too familiar with the drudgery of in-person meetings and phone conversations, or worse, the endless teleconferences or e-mail most of us have to endure as the seemingly necessary tax of collaboration. We’re still accustomed to picking up the phone, rather that moving conversations into new social forums so that everyone can benefit. Recently though, many of us have added social networking to our portfolio of communication options at work, even though it’s still piecemeal in many organizations. These social networks might be LinkedIn, Facebook, or increasingly our enterprise social networks within the workplace.

Right now most of us use social tools as a shorthand form of older types of traditional communication. The actual volume of individual communications is smaller, yet the conversation itself will often be longer, perhaps years in some collaborative scenarios. The audience is also larger and often unknown since the default for social media is to share with everyone. But where it gets particularly interesting from a business perspective is that our musings, questions, and status updates also hang around. Usually for a very long time, and this can have very significant positive business impact given that collaboration is the key activity of knowledge workers, which create the bulk of of the value in most large companies.

Much has been made over the last few years about how open and transparent social software is and that it will help us remake the way that we organize and communicate within the enterprise (see the Middle East in the first quarter of 2011 to see how top-down control can be impacted by social media). I find that while the openness factor is certainly true, the transparency process in most organization is a longer one than most envision (though it’s almost never disruptive or uncontrolled.)

Rather, where it gets interesting is the part where communication and collaboration is much more efficient and long-lasting in most types of social media. The push vs. pull models of information sharing and cooperation has been explored in great detail by others, most by notably John Hagel and John Seely Brown. Social media relies more on pull, which drives down the overhead required to communicate and collaborate by a significant amount as ongoing collaborative processes are discovered and joined by those that have a stake in them, while others are excluded automatically (by not having opted into the discussion when it started.)

Harvesting stored failure and success

But as JP Rangaswami recently noted at the Social Business Summit last month in Austin, social tools now allow us to store failures and successes in a highly useful way that was never really possible in more private or closed collaborative settings. Because social communication is both openly participative and open-ended, it allows us to store collaboration openly on the network (internal or external or an organization as needed) indefinitely so that it may continue to provide value to the organization. Crucially, stored collaboration can then be brought back to life at any time as new participants discover it, join in, ask questions, and continue the discussion.

Related: The Facebook imperative for the enterprise.

In this way, this gives us a key additional insight into why the new models of social business (which is the application of social media to the workplace) is uniquely different. And, this is what has proven remarkable about social media in general, that it is based on simple, straightforward patterns of communication that when kept undiluted or interfered with at their core, can enable people over networks to attain incredible leverage and scale to their business efforts, as evidenced by the attention that leading social networks get today.

A lot of this attention has been given to admiring the simultaneity of social media, meaning that a larger percentage of people are working at any given time, as opposed to merely listening (as in a traditional 50 person conference call, when only one person can speak at a time.) But it’s also that collaboration isn’t artificially truncated and can proceed naturally as long as participants are interested in it that is just as important. Stored collaboration can be reused beyond the initial collaboration to teach, inform, train, orient, and retain knowledge for an unlimited time — months and years afterward — instead of expiring unseen and with little value in e-mail accounts, phone calls, and elsewhere. As the early adopters of Enterprise 2.0 have discovered, a great deal more collaboration is visible and discoverable on social intranets than non-social ones.

In other words, those organizations that let their expensively generated collaboration ‘evaporate’ or get trapped in IT silos will reap the lower ROI in accordance to their lack of respect for the outputs of knowledge work.

Longevity Of Social Collaboration

How long-lived collaboration will provide value depends on how you’re applying social media to your business problem. In Social CRM, customer conversations and support issues never quite end but are refined and involved as new participants discover the original discussion, add to it, and assist each other. On a social intranet, a project or a business process lives forever, initially as a place to get the work done but then as a never ending blueprint for future such work, or an ongoing post-mortem, or even a place for others to extract best practices or gather lessons learned. Stored collaboration is the key to spreading useful knowledge more than just far and wide, but over the longest possible useful period of time. Ultimately, such living social business histories will form the bulk of a businesses collaborative landscape in most organizations.

Also, to make sure we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, I should be clear that real-time collaboration is still useful in some scenarios, but it is stored collaboration that’s truly strategically invaluable. Ultimately long-lived collaboration will form the majority of usable and accessible knowledge in your organization, just like the Web has become the largest resources most of us have to understand the conversations and collaborations across the rest of the world.

Note: I’ll be examining the under-appreciated aspects of enterprise social media over the next few weeks as I share my latest industry observations and research in social business.

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