Business IS Society: Get Used To It

Not surprisingly, “social networking” in business found almost immediate footing in the customer-facing segments of organizations. There’s something uniquely “customer-servicey” about it.

The “customer experience” is a big part of the social media message... so much so, in fact, that Attensity has developed a sort-of mantra surrounding it. “LARA... LARA... LARA...” If you say it often enough, says Attensity’s Catherine van Zuylen, you will achieve total consciousness. So you got that going for you. Which is nice. (I hope somebody besides my post-adolescent male friends got that last reference.)*

Anyway, LARA is a pretty good starting point. It stands for “listen, analyze, relate and act.” The gist of it is to put technology in place, but use it toward the goals of: 1. capturing customer interactions; 2. understanding what the customers are really saying to you; 3. apply technology to associate customer words and queries with actionable content within your business repositories and contextual realms; and then 4. be prepared to take some proactive steps to satisfy, maintain and derive revenue from that customer.

It’s sounds bleeding obvious, but you’d be surprised how few people have put it that simply. Good for them. Make no mistake: this is a technology-based play. But it’s one that puts the customer experience in the forefront.

Also underscoring the customer interaction aspect of social networking, Consona provides the view that customers have always helped each other... it’s just easier and better supported to do so now, thanks to social network tools.

The idea that FaceBook-style status updates and Twitter-like bursts have a place in business contexts can be hard to grasp for some organizations. For many executives, “social” translates into “goofing off.” But Consona’s Tim Hines is one of those persuasive authors who can make the case that social tools can be leveraged into business gold. After all, as he puts it, “there can be as much or more knowledge outside of service and support than inside.”

But Tim would also be among the first to tell you that social network-style support for business processes isn’t just trendy. For one thing, there’s an economic driver; it’s cheaper to have outside observers contribute “tips and tricks” and the wide array of product information that comes from first-hand experiences.

And we learn that social networks appeal to another human frailty: ego. Back in the early days of knowledge management, we used to wonder how to “incentivize” people to contribute know-how to their coworkers, and how to compensate those who did a good job articulating answers to customers. What do we learn from Consona? Give ‘em a gold star, pat ‘em on the head and tell them they’re smarter than the average bear.

The Technology Abides
Despite many efforts to minimize the impact that technology has on social networks... well, there it is. Lucid Imagination’s David Fishman takes the bull by the horns, and talks about the role that open source search and programming plays in social networks for business. In fact, David makes the argument that the effective information management of the vast variety and volume of information resulting from social nets would be impossible without adequate (and he would argue “open”) search tools.

Makes sense; the information coming into social tools is mostly unstructured and certainly unpredictable. Standard-issue text search tools will NOT satisfy the demand, says David. Using real-life and current case-use stories, the Lucid Imagination article can make a pretty persuasive argument that “kindergarten search” is not sufficient for social networking. 

He talks about more “traditional” social networks such as LinkIn and MySpace (seems funny to refer to them as “traditional” already), but makes the case that the future generations of business users will benefit from these tools. “Collaboration, business intelligence analytics, security, purchase transactions, all increasingly face data of scope, scale and update rates similar to social media,” he says.

These are “best practices” papers after all, and that brings us to NewsGator. Christy Schoon uses this opportunity to describe a series of “best practice” steps to create a business social network for YOUR organization. And that’s a good thing to do. Using a series of clear and pragmatic steps, Christy makes the case for a “pilot” program launch to test the waters and to “ease into” social networking. That’s wise... even though we’ve referred to social networks as “traditional,” they are anything but for most organizations. An even hand and a careful adoption is, Christy says, the best approach.

Here’s another important point Christy makes: It’s tempting to refer to all this stuff—blogs, wikis, forums, etc.—currently being applied in business contexts as “social networking.” I’ve done it throughout this opening article. But the fact is that these are tools for the enterprise, and they do in fact represent a new generation of application tools. They should be more accurately called “Enterprise 2.0” applications. It’s probably not worth much electricity to agonize over the terminology... who cares what we call it, right? But in an organization that is skittish about “social,” it might be really good advice to measure your words and “frost the cake” a little when approaching upper management with a new information paradigm. After all, they’ve been through a few of those already.

Finally, I’ve gotten to know Open Text’s Deb Lavoy a little bit lately, and I’m pretty sure she knows what she’s talking about. And here’s the thing: Open Text dates back as far as I can remember to when knowledge management was a nascent business concept, and also when it met with considerable skepticism. Boy, do I remember!

So she would excuse me to learn that I came to this social business networking stuff a little late, and more than a little leery. But Deb, more than anyone, makes an interesting case that social networking MAY just be what we were talking about all along. If you think about it, collaboration, such as that described by Deb, might just well be the very soul of knowledge management. Learning for tomorrow is a greater quality than training and expertise for today... maybe these are the very things that KM was imagined to be. And maybe we’re finally getting there. 

* (It’s from “Caddyshack,” the greatest post-adolescent male friend movie ever.)?

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