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Social computing’s elusive value

At a conference in the fall, I presented a talk on the value of social computing to an audience of around 300. Some attendees captured the 12-foot slide images on their phones and posted them to blogs, others crafted posts to publish later, and some tweeted in real time. As I discussed the value of social computing in the enterprise, my audience was practicing the diversity of behaviors that makes capturing the value of social computing so elusive.

Would people read those blogs and tweets? Would they cross-post and re-tweet, and if so, what value would that provide to the social media pundits who published? What would it do for SharePoint sales? What pitfalls would it help the recipients avoid? What opportunities would the posts unleash?

To make matters even more confusing, a conference audience represents only one facet of the social computing phenomenon … individual people, some employees, some analysts, some journalists, creating personal brands on public platforms. Most of them weren’t trying to drive their own sales. They weren’t executives attempting to effect change in their organizations. They were individuals within organizations large and small, sharing what mattered to them.

When it comes to enterprise social computing, marketing is, of course, the most well known application. The use of social computing in marketing can help improve customer intimacy by creating more responsive communication with customers. Social media offers opportunities to learn about customers and about how they use products and services, and it can create a channel for new ideas that may eventually lead to  innovations. Social media creates bi-directional learning channels. In marketing, it can also contribute to more traditional measures of value such as increasing message awareness (perhaps even creating a viral “hit”), boosting existing social site traffic as sites get picked up in social media and accessing peripheral audiences with no additional investment. Those tangible results are echoed in a 2009 Mzinga/Babson Executive Education study that reports that marketing, at 57 percent, is the area most likely to employ social media for professional purposes.

Marketing focuses on the outward-facing persona of an enterprise. Many organizations continue to struggle with how to rapidly respond to problems, how to capture knowledge to ensure business quality and continuity, and how to reduce transition costs associated with everything from small process changes to the assimilation of another firm resulting from a merger or acquisition. Managers and individuals have a sense that social computing can be a component of their strategy, but they aren’t sure about how.

Many of them are just experimenting as that nascent field unfolds. The Mzinga and Babson study reported that 84 percent of respondents weren’t tracking the ROI of social computing. Over the course of the last decade, I have discussed why it is impossible to calculate the ROI of widely deployed horizontal communication or collaboration technology, whether it is instant messaging  or unified communications. The central argument focused on the inability to anticipate outcomes. Therefore, the ROI cannot be determined. Just as I hinted at in the value derived from bloggers in a conference audience, organizations cannot foretell who will talk to whom; what they will talk about; and if they do discuss business, what the magnitude of any return might be or when the return might appear as revenue or savings. At Forrester, I called this the “economics of accidents.” The idea behind those tools should not be to drive productivity in its most narrow sense, but to increase the number of accidental encounters, thus increasing the possibility of value-added conversations, given the increasingly distributed and fragmented nature of the work force.

But in some cases, ROI can be calculated, and the return on investment in those narrow areas may well fund the more elusive value derived from increasing social interactions.

Those more firm areas of return can be found in the chart on this page http://www.kmworld.com/downloads/65994/SocialComputingChart.pdf. The returns suggested in the chart will not be without their doubters. The improvement of information quality may be taken to task by anyone who has encountered errors in Wikipedia, the largest collectively edited information source in the world. Unlike Wikipedia, internal knowledge sources can have permissions restricted so that only qualified individuals have editing rights, with comments or suggestions more open.

In a project I managed at Hughes Aircraft, that approach to knowledge transfer eliminated the overhead of early reviews by providing an open platform for suggestions. The ideas that had been used were clearly differentiated from untested material. As the ideas were applied, the increased knowledge about their effectiveness and any incremental improvements were codified by engineers responsible for a domain of knowledge. That approach permitted rapid learning from a social network, but ensured quality over time as process and technology owners evaluated and confirmed the results of suggestions.

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