It's A Social World: And We All Live In It

Anyone who has read these articles regularly knows that I came to "social networking" for business late and then only reluctantly. In fact, I am personally living only on the furthest outskirts of the social neighborhood. I don't Twitter, nor Tweet. I haven't linked up with LinkedIn. I have no interest in Pinterest. I'm too anti-social to collaborate. I can't even say "wiki" without smirking.

I do enjoy Facebook, but mainly as a way to reconnect with old friends, remote friends and new acquaintances I never would have known otherwise. But it's also a localized, interpersonal thing in real life. I think of Facebook as a sort of secret handshake. If I'm at the grocery store and run into a Facebook friend, there's a new and unique little vibe to our encounter. It almost always starts with a small laugh of recognition, and a knowing acknowledgement in our eye contact—"I saw that thing you posted" is the new "Nice weather we're having."

But when it comes to finding the business value in social networking, I'm starting to come around. It's not because of the expectation of the inevitable, either. I know that there are many business owners who are mandating that their businesses "go social," even when they don't entirely understand what that means. They just came back from a management conference in Scottsdale, and some guy persuaded them that "the future is in social." We'll get back to the folly of that in a minute, but first some reality.

Forrester Research famously estimated, in 2011, that 64% of all businesses were using some form of social tool. I bet it's way higher than that now. But I also wonder how inclusive that figure is. Does it mean that one guy in accounting has a LinkedIn account? Or does it mean the organization is actively and deliberately applying social tools as a means to improve their business performance?

Probably hard to judge that. I can tell you that it all seems very familiar. When we first started talking about "knowledge management" about a century ago, the first proponents had no interest in addressing the business implications. Believe it or not, they were academicians and theorists who liked to talk about "transforming the tacit to the explicit," and "closed loop self-promulgating knowledge ecosystems." I know. I rolled my eyes then, too, in much the same way I rolled my eyes at the theorists who talked about social networking.

But then it finally occurred to me: The basic tenets of social networking are precisely what we meant when we visualized knowledge management. KM got off course by focusing on the vendors' messages of "KM is content management," "KM is document management" and "KM is a software solution." Many people fell for that, and many people were disappointed. By under-addressing the business improvement part of the equation, KM was held back for years, and outright scorned by many organizations. It cost a lot, and provided little value.

I was worried about social networking in business suffering in the same spiral to hell. I lived through the "KM adoption and denial" years, and so I know a little bit about this. And I can tell you the single difference: KM was forced onto the workforce; social is welcomed by the workforce. That reality has its own set of problems, of course, but the general, organic and welcome adoption of social—unlike KM—is not one of them.

The Path to Social

Serious companies, like Dell and Motorola, are famously talking about how many thousands of users and myriad instances of blogs and discussion groups, etc., are in play within their enterprises. They know intrinsically that these are positive endeavors, although I do not think they can accurately measure the return. They just "know" it's a good thing.

And there's certainly nothing wrong with that. But the nature of social networking has its own perils. Small teams launch their own deployments, or start their own SharePoint instances, to get their things done, but the result is a fragmented, siloed collection of dead and abandoned collaboration spaces. That causes problems for the IT team (costs), the legal team (risks) and the records manager (WTH?).

But the other typical path to a social business might even be worse. The COO is at a cocktail party at an industry conference. He picks up on several of his colleagues and competitors talking about their "social strategy." So when he gets home he starts a checklist: need a blog, check!; need a wiki (smirk), check!; need a collaboration space, check!

What he doesn't take the time to realize is that the people who work for him are perfectly happy with their existing processes. So without fail they will: (1.) turn on the new applications; (2.) login with their credentials and password, and (3.) immediately begin ignoring the aforementioned applications. They know they're required to cooperate, so they do what all smart employees do: they pretend to.

For many employees, these mandated collaborations, forced down by the executive level are often victim of what John Hagel at Deloitte's Center for the Edge refers to as "the empty bar syndrome." Sounds like a joke at first, but it's not: Guy walks into a bar. There is no one there. So he walks out and never comes back. It was unsatisfying and held no value, and now it sits there, empty and unused. That is an expensive situation for an executive who tried to push down a social network from his corner office on the 85th floor.

There is another danger with social network implementations: the sprawl syndrome. We hear about this all the time in the context of SharePoint, which is, usually, deployed as a collaboration space for project managers to share work among a small group of developers/designers/marketers/whatevers. (Newer and future versions of SharePoint have added and will continue to add value in the form of better content management, records management, etc. But for all intents and purposes, SharePoint remains a collaboration platform.)

Here's the picture: A product manager wants to get input from a diverse variety of stakeholders in the release of the new "Widget 3.0." He starts a "meeting space" (doesn't matter what software he uses... they are pretty much all alike) and his various colleagues start to weigh in. Product designers post their schematics; marketing people back-and-forth on product names and release dates; legal checks on trademark and intellectual property issues; sales managers want to know when they can start talking about it... Then, the product finally launches on a Thursday, and by Saturday the previously very active Widget 3.0 planning space is dead. Desolate. Abandoned. Ghost town. But, it is still there. A hollow reminder of a better time. And a burdensome drain on IT resources and a nightmare scenario for records managers. Now multiply that times thousands.

The social business does not come without its special perils. The question for many of you has to be: "Is it worth it?"

"I See You"

In his article in this white paper, Dan Latendre of Igloo correctly points out that "integrating content, applications, tasks, messaging and other communication tools is essential to collaborating in context. It creates a single digital workplace, so the unstructured social sharing can happen in the same system as your day-to-day tasks."

The difference might be as simple as: "I see you." In today's social workplace, the acknowledgement of contribution has gained enormous value. I used to say it's an ego-gratification thing, and I'm sure that for some it is. There are personalities that require attention and demand acknowledgement. Social networks in the enterprise provide that in spades. "Bill in marketing posts great stuff every day." That's all it takes for Bill to post even more; there is great psychic reward in having your colleagues and coworkers say you are good at your job.

When we first started talking about knowledge management, we recognized that sharing information was a foreign concept. After all, if I tell someone else how to do something, then my monopoly on that information is reduced by half... and perhaps lost forever, in the event that the other person can use the information better and gain more leverage from it. So we used to talk about ways of compensating knowledge workers for sharing information. Many of the early adopters were consulting companies. Some of them tried to "pay by the word" for their analysts to contribute to the general knowledgebase. Literally—they paid 10 cents a word, or whatever. As you can imagine, the knowledgebases got filled up with crap, and the consultancies didn't benefit a whit.

What is especially remarkable about today's social networks is: People do it because they want to. Sure, there's ego involved. And there's career advancement to be gained. But mostly, people just do it because they want to.

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