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Social computing’s elusive value

Positive reports on value are on the rise. In the Jan. 28 edition of The Economist, Intel recruiter Don Cooper shares that the chipmaker has saved millions of dollars in recruiting costs by using business-facing social media sites rather than expensive recruiting firms. Scottrade has retired its aging content management system with a more open, social platform, reducing the costs of technology, as well as creating lighter-weight content management processes. United Airlines is filling seats by offering last minutes “twares” to loyal customers over Twitter. But those anecdotal victories for social computing may be just the beginning. As social scientists better understand human networks, new ways of seeing the technology may emerge.

New perspectives

As I was researching the current state of social computing benefits, I came across the Framingham heart study and the “infectious” nature of obesity that hit headlines in 2007. In Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler document their examination of the Framingham findings. It became evident to me that enterprise social computing had something profound to learn from the multiyear, longitudinal heart study conducted in Framingham, Mass., since 1948, as well as the insights of Christakis and Fowler. If obesity, smoking cessation and even happiness were socially influenced, then social computing could be considered a channel for change within organizations.

Social software makes networks and relationships explicit and, therefore, easily mined. What enterprise social computing users can do, which the Framingham researchers could not, is evaluate influence data available in near real time. Rather than looking over wide time horizons, like shifting obesity levels or smoking, the adoption of process changes or competitive threats or public relations fiascos could be effectively managed by monitoring the enterprise social environment through the lens of its conversations.

Enterprises may not be able to anticipate the need for change management, but they can surely understand its value historically, and how often change is poorly managed. By deploying social computing, they may be creating an improved capacity for change, the value of which will only be found if they are looking for it.

Finding value by looking

As the Mzinga/Babson study suggests, most companies aren’t going to find an ROI for social computing, not because it doesn’t exist, but because they aren’t looking for it. Organizations that are serious about understanding the value of their investments should not be discouraged by their inability to anticipate value and returns; rather, they should practice what investments with positive ROIs still call for: observation. Every return on investment calculation is a speculation. Some have such a long track record of value that organizations barely look to see if they have achieved results once the spreadsheet populates the calculation. But in the case of social computing, those who want to understand its value, and perhaps more importantly, its effects, need to develop the capacity to document functions and processes before the introduction of social computing, and then monitor their use and how they affect a process or function over time.

Of course, most organizations will closely observe a handful of experiments at the same time their work force is overwhelming them with the introduction of technology in places they aren’t watching. And because the impetus for social computing often originates with individuals, the infiltration will be complete before it is understood. That happened with cellular phones, and it happened with instant messaging. If you look back further, the patterns of PC use followed that adoption profile as well. If you aren’t comfortable with social media, either personal or from the business value perspective, you will get there eventually. The onslaught of business applications has just started, and the biggest excuse for technology adoption will ultimately catch up with you: Everybody else is doing it, so we have to in order to stay competitive.   

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