Social Business: Delivering the Promise of KM?

As we all know, KM has been an uphill sell for a long time. Failed projects. Misdirected strategies. Lack of adoption. Expensive and ineffective technologies. These are the kinds of things that put a bad taste in the mouth of executives and investors.

What KM really needed was a killer app—a no-brainer, value-creating, business-improving reason to adopt and support a knowledge-based strategy in the fast-moving and diverse organizations that are common today.

We might have stumbled on it. In shorthand, we call it "social business." More drawn out, it is the application of social technologies as they are applied to operational and mission-critical business functions. More on that later.

One of the early and best-known proponents of social business has been Jive Software. Headquartered in Palo Alto, it has a global presence and an international overview. Wanting to explore the intersection of KM and social, I met with Tim Zonca. Tim is director of product marketing at Jive, but don't let that fool you. He's not your typical pitchman. After ditching med school to join the tech world, he's spent most of his career focused on things like enterprise content management, business process management and driving collaboration in the enterprise. He seemed like the man to talk to.

I start with the typical hard-driving pessimistic journalist question (I'm not really one of those, but I play one on TV). "How much of ‘social business' is a reality, and how much of it is early-adopter, too-cool-for-school, pie-in-the-sky dreaming? Isn't ‘social' just a code word for ‘messing around at work?'"

And the answer, apparently, is no.

"That perception might have been there at one time, but it has changed pretty drastically, especially in the last six months," insists Tim, right off the bat. "We talk to a lot of customers, and lately we're spending time not only with a CIO or CTO-level person, but almost always a line-of-business leader. We've had cases where the CEO and even the board is involved. That's because they've seen their counterparts and competitors embrace social business technology in mysterious and impactful ways. ‘We can't ignore this,' they are saying. ‘This is transformational, and it's going to affect everyone in the organization,' they say. So senior people are looking at it at a very strategic level now," Tim declares.

And I believe him. Social business collaboration has taken a steep rise to the front-of-mind of organizations. Collaboration, social intranets, etc. are now freely talked about. I can remember when that kind of thing would get you kicked out of a meeting, but these days... not so much.

I wanted to know from Tim how he would characterize the current state of actual acceptance and deployment? Is it still mostly talking points among the consultants? Or has there been actual progress in adopting social for business?

"Maybe it's a byproduct of who I talk to," he answers. "But many of the largest financial services organizations and other regulated industries are taking it seriously. There are even companies that are 150 years old in manufacturing that have adopted this stuff.

"Late last year/early this year we've really seen a shift toward the mainstream. There have been a few factors driving this: consultants, analysts and media like yourselves are  bringing it to the attention of business. Also, customers are starting to talk about the value they are seeing. There was a McKinsey paper that came out last summer which spelled out the potential that social might provide to an organization. At that time, they anticipated that $1.3 trillion could be either gained or saved using social technology. After that, we started having many more conversations," says Tim. I'll bet they did!

"We have since dug into our customer base to find out where they are seeing this kind of value, or, indeed, were they at all?" adds Tim. "It was a large sample, around 400 customers, and they were not little science projects, but massive customers using social business at scale. And we found that social was bringing them a 15% increase in productivity across the board, which translates to about a 2% to 4% revenue impact per year. So it's pretty substantial," he says.

But Tim is also very realistic in his analysis of the state of the market. He is no dummy. "When I say it's ‘moved to the mainstream,' I would not say it's tipped entirely that way. But we're definitely past the ‘early adopter' phase, and we're hitting the ‘early majority' market, for sure." But the message I get from Tim is that the world hasn't entirely embraced social business, quite yet.  That's a realistic assessment, I think.

Teasing Out the Value

The subject of value came up—a lot—in our conversation. So I drilled down on that subject with Tim. "You've teased it out a little bit already," says Tim. He likes that expression—"teased it out"—and so do I. For the record, I am hereby borrowing it for casual conversation. Full disclosure: if you hear me use it, I got it from Tim.

But rather than tease, I asked full on: "What types of productivity can you possibly get from social business tools?"

"Less time in meetings and on email; finding the information experts they need to get work done faster; that kind of thing," Tim says. "The point is: there are tangible and impactful gains people are getting from using social."

But, Tim points out, there are a couple levels of worth that social brings to the table, and he is adamant about understanding the difference. "Successful deployments of social have a couple distinct attributes," he begins. "The market at large talks about things like ‘connecting people,' ‘being more engaged,' ‘collaboration.'" Platitudes, I think, and very hard to cost-justify. "True. Some of that is important, but it's not the only thing. We call those ‘wide use cases.' If you deploy social only for those reasons, you might eventually get adoption...it will just take a while," Tim explains.

"But our most successful customer examples, and the ones that have the fastest adoption also add to those wide use cases what we call ‘deeper use cases.' These are specific business applications. For example, marketing is using social for program planning and execution; sales is using it for deal management and sales enablement; R&D is using it for product development planning and innovation cycles; IT is using it to develop new technologies to deliver to their employees..." That's when social begins to become a relevant business tool. I'm starting to get it.

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