It is not often I agree with social media people. Most of the time I find they're full of it and return pointed questions with dopey answers. Today is an exception. Shel Israel, one of the earliest and most prolific arm wavers for all thing social has finally 'fessed up on the question that vexes many: ROI for social style applications. In a revealing post he says:
For the past two years, the Sphinx Riddle for social media proponents has been ROI. Despite whatever compelling arguments we had for social media in the enterprise, failure to answer this question in a way that satisfied the cross-armed skeptic was pretty destructive to our cases.
Back in 2005, I used to reply with glib answers like, "the same as the ROI on a press release or a telephone line or an email account." This pleased those who already agreed with me on social media. But it did little to persuade the doubters. I knew that but it was the best I could do.
Let's cut to the chase. Shel is basically saying: "We had no idea but couldn't lose face." I have no argument with that, recalling well the conversations I had with Charlene Li when she was at Forrester and grappling with the ROI of blogging. Forrester continues to madly arm wave, in latter times through the efforts of Jeremiah Owyang, whose insistence on using his blog as a 'research' gathering tool beggars serious belief, based as it is on the bubble crowd in Silicon Valley. In fairness to Jeremiah, he's the first to admit that his focus is on the narrow area of external facing, marketing driven efforts in the social media space. Back to the plot.
Shel goes on to acknowledge that ROI is 'not a resolved issue' but then spins his argument to discuss scalability and sustainability, basing his argument on the thinking of KD Paine:
In fact, scalability may not even be the right term for the emerging issue. KD Paine, one of my favorite thinkers on issues like these told me, "I think scalability is one thing and sustainability is the other side of the coin."
I disagree. Scalability is all about the ability to ramp up and sustain a working platform with large numbers of participants and coping with spikes in demand. It is a technology issue. Sustainability is a completely different concept. That's about ensuring the people within a particular network are able to grow and sustain their efforts over time. This is where life gets awkward for the social media folk because the underlying assumption seems to be that social networks operate on a continuum. I believe that's a false premise. At least when viewed through the enterprise lens to which these writers refer. Let's deconstruct this.
The notion that hordes of people inside the enterprise will spontaneously emerge and virally form groups is patently absurd. The silos that operate inside the enterprise are as strong today as they ever have been. Erosion may occur at the edges but that's all we've seen - to date. Instead, I find the idea that small groups with a common interest as emergent far more compelling.It is about the notion that content with context and purpose has meaning. Anything else is time wasting.
If you believe as I do that 80% of what people are likely to be doing in a process driven world is problem solving then it makes a huge amount of sense to consider the network as a resource through which I can discover people who can provide answers as an effective alternative to the watercooler effect. But these are temporary requirements. Once answers are found, people go back to what they were doing until the next time.
The crucially important sustainability question comes in being able to archive the discussions that sit around a topic area for later re-use. Moving on.
Another underlying presumption is that once connected, people will maintain those connections. Not true. In life we sustain very few relationships over long periods of time. Look at the trend towards serial monogamy as an example. It therefore makes far better sense to think in terms of continually evolving and then dissolving groups with only a small core of people with whom individuals are likely to remain connected.
I like to think about the people inside the Irregulars as my ongoing example. I have relationships with them all but only a a very few are on my regular list of people that I would personally contact when requiring assistance. Sustaining those relationships is far more important to me than attempting to do so in the wider group. Indeed, I regard such a thought as intellectually abhorrent because it simply isn't possible to do that without expending more effort than the value that might be derived. Hence a clear ROI.
Next time your Something 2.0/Social WhatNot 2.0/Twitter Clone etc startup pitches with the 'viral' message be warned. I ain't buying it. At least not from the sustainability viewpoint.