Over the last few weeks, several important parallel threads in social collaboration have begun flowing together at long last, though still a little uneasily yet. From this discussion I believe there’s a real chance to address some long-standing social business challenges if we can work through and address these issues better than we have up until now.

Unfortunately, any progress will require connecting some technology thinking with some business thinking, which is the quintessential oil and water of the information technology divide. However, I believe we can now do this better than we ever could in the recent past and that a major opportunity lies ahead.

Specifically, these threads are:

1. The requirement to connect social software with systems of record, productivity applications, and the local intranet, etc. This puts social tools where the most important enterprise data is today, and;

2. The need to move social tools into the flow of work. The isolation of social business platforms from the key operational activities of the organization is increasingly understood as a root cause of slower adoption and lower relevance.

The first thread on social integration with IT systems is one that I’ve been exploring in recent months with social app stores, OpenSocial 2.0, social networking applications, and so on. David F. Carr has also been exploring these developments with some success on InformationWeek recently, such as social data sharing with OAuth 2.0.

Because it tends to be technical, I find that discussions on these topic, despite representing some of the most innovative and promising work in a half-decade, have a tiny fraction of the interest by the social business community than the softer yet seemingly more relevant social workflow conversations.

Unfortunately, another cause of the low interest in recent social integration advances is because attempts at defining Enterprise 2.0 software standards and technologies have largely been a source of disappointment until recently. The consumer Web runs rings around what the enterprise space is doing in social business, has almost completely defined the space, and will likely continue to do so, though that’s starting to change with what IBM, Jive, and a few others are now doing.

Social Software As The Connective Fabric for Daily Work

The point here is that we finally have some increasingly mature, powerful, compelling, and now widely supported solutions for connecting social software with the rest of our IT systems across the enterprise. It’s an exciting time but it’s one that the technical crowd is mostly focusing on, but largely without considering the larger business focus or workflow.

Focusing on the work

The second thread of this discussion was recently underscored when Laurie Buczek wrote a popular post recently lamented the following:

The big failure of social business is a lack of integration of social tools into the collaborative workflow.

Andrew McAfee himself, fully realizing the significance of this issue, joined the discussion, noting that:

Data and decisions (“OK, go ahead and increase the customer’s credit limit so we can ship the order”) should be able to flow easily between the systems for formal and informal work. This is not a new point, but it bears repeating for exactly the reasons Laurie mentions. Unless and until this happens, Enterprise 2.0 is much less than it could be.

Update: Sameer Patel wrote Succeeding Unignorably this morning about many of these same issues.

It should be fairly clear at this point that the second thread is about what and the first is about how social business tools can have more impact and relevance to our daily work. While social integration and connecting social software to our work are NOT necessarily the same thing, primarily because you can connect social tools to some work processes without any integration, the fact is that much of the work we do today are in systems that are not connected to our social tools. This causes a myriad of problems in adoption and day-to-day use including manually copying data into our social environments, fragmented pictures of business processes that are otherwise narrated in social tools, yet the core context is separately stored in other systems entirely.

By combining the the what and the how in this picture — and completely putting aside specific technologies for now — it’s now clear that we must take a holistic approach to thinking about how people work together with our systems of record and systems of engagement. This can be difficult because of the (often highly) emergent nature of the the latter and the technical issues in doing so, which the business side doesn’t focus on. But the two must be connected together well in most organizations to directly drive long-term social business success.

How might this look? Because social media will ultimately assume the focus of worker attention, the activity streams in our social tools become a primary home for social integration. Activity streams are a natural center of news, conversation, collaboration, discovery, and knowledge. I now see good evidence that activity streams are becoming the hub of daily work; a consistent and centralized view of all communication and interaction. Therefore, social apps — and associated app stores to provide them — can enable line of business applications to contextually appear inside our activity streams, while embedding technologies are allowing us to project connected social experiences directly within our intranets, Web apps, other horizontal tools like ECM and DMS, and line of business applications like CRM, ERP, and so on.

Three simple options

Discussions on how to integrate social business with our work and IT systems must remain primarily non-technical ones to succeed as a way of thinking about social business design. The design of future business processes should thus probably focus on three major elements of connecting social to workflow via our systems of record:

Social apps – Wrap our existing business applications in a social envelope that allows them to live in and interact with us and our activity streams. This puts our fragmented systems of record into its full social context.

Social embedding – Going to where the work is, social embedding allows us to put sharing, social notifications, and threaded conversations inside existing systems of record. Embedding is a technology that has long been proven on the Web and is similar to what the Facebook Like button has achieved, near ubiquity through simplicity. Many social tools use this technique today, but it must be internalized as an enterprise capability.

Social integration – When a) wrapping enterprise software and placing it inside our social business platforms or b) embedding specific social experiences in our enterprise systems don’t cut it, the fall back option is traditional integration. This will often be more expensive and time-consuming but can be used when the first two won’t work for a given reason.

The first two approaches are far more desirable and now widely supported by standardized social technologies that have surfaced in the last year. Applying them can greatly reduce the distance between our business systems and social systems. The challenge is in connecting our business thinking with our social business service delivery.

Only by demanding changes and improvements to our business processes, a social overhaul if you will, from an understanding that it’s now much easier to accomplish will we see this combined discussion bear fruit. It’s up to you to make it so. Fortunately, it’s far more attainable now than ever before.

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