Social business? Déjà’ vu all over again

Summary:The IBM Connect 2013 show stirred up all kinds of thoughts because of the push for the "social business." This was tried before but now, the tools are bigger, badder, and use all sorts of new information. But will social business fly now?

IBM is transitioning. It's got a $1 billion business with a software product called Lotus Notes but it is consciously trying to reposition it and other products around a social business mantra. To illustrate, one of the IBM communications executives pointed out to me that the "Lotusphere" part of the IBM Connect show logo is "getting smaller and smaller every year."

IBM Connect Lotus 016
(Credit: TechVentive. Copyright 2013. Used with permission. All rights reserved.)

IBM sees "social" as the way to accelerate sales of a raft of related applications (and the services work that implements and integrates these products). At this week's IBM Connect 2013 show, many customers are being trotted out to discuss how they've implemented one or another product and how they can now connect people to collaboration threads to social media to insights and more. And, sometimes we'll get data points that show the business outcomes that result from this effort.

I'm having a case of Déjà Vu at this show though.

In the early 1990s, I led a small team at Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) to see if there was a market for knowledge management. My team and I were definitely thorough. We interviewed people all over the world. We found out fascinating aspects to successful and unsuccessful knowledge-management initiatives. And, in the end, we concluded that the time wasn't right and that the market wasn't mature enough yet.

In the 1990s, there wasn't social technology but there was collaboration software, email, Lotus Notes, and other tools. We didn't have analytics but we did have data warehousing and ETL technology. We didn't have the cloud but we had networks, the Internet, and intranets. And we definitely didn't have much in mobile--no smartphones or tablets--but we did have analog brick mobile phones and laptop computers.

It is my theory that we could have had the "social business" that IBM is talking about 20 years ago but we would have worked mightily to get a less elegant and simpler version of it. The interesting questions are: Why didn't social business explode then? And, how likely will it explode now?


Why social business didn't take off earlier


Social systems require people to voluntarily produce content. When you get right down to it, if people contribute nothing, the social technology is barren and will never have much of a user base. Twenty years ago I learned that large segments of the workforce are "users" or "takers" of knowledge-management content. Salespeople were often the worst examples of this selfish behavior. They would gladly be a user of any system that gave them insights into prospects but they never seemed to have the time to add to the data store or the inclination to share their data with other, potentially competing, sales reps.

Twenty years later, I still find that many in business are "users" or "takers" of information. Way too few business people can actually write. Have you ever tried to write a thought leadership piece for your firm? Have you ever created a big piece of intellectual property (eg, a methodology)? Could you write three to five solid blog posts a week? No. Most people can't or won't do these things. Worse, businesses rarely let people be cosmopolitan enough to mix, mingle, or visit with customers, colleagues, suppliers, etc, to develop the world view needed to craft especially relevant content. So, content rarely, if ever, gets built.

I see symptoms of this every day. Some people believe that simply re-posting another's work is creating knowledge. It isn't. Some folks think that blatant plagiarism is adding to the richness of the network. It isn't. I would suggest that real value from a social or knowledge system occurs when new, original insights are available to all.

While third-party data is important in populating a knowledge base, the employees have to also create their point of view or the official point of view of their employer. Data without insight is not knowledge. It's just data.

This creates an immediate problem as great knowledge tools (and I'd include most social technologies here) must find a way to trick, cajole, or otherwise incentivise users to volunteer information. And businesses must allocate time for employees and executives to add to the richness of the content. In the intervening years since knowledge-management systems first came out, social-media successes like LinkedIn and Facebook got better at understanding the psychology of the people who both consume and populate the data. They have found ways to get people to want to update their content, sometimes many times a day. The best sites keep participants engaged for years. Blogs, in contrast, often lose steam fast as writers either run out of things to say or get too little psychological validation from too few readers to keep them writing and writing and writing. But, 20 years ago, we were only just beginning to understand the psychology of social users.

The network effect was another unknown concept back in the day. Rational, logical builders of knowledge systems could build the needed technology but getting the great unwashed masses to join and be active in the new intranet/network/knowledge ecosystem was a little-known concept. Sure, some businesses mandated your participation and some found that went over like telling a child to eat their cauliflower. Network effect in knowledge systems didn't really start to hit its stride until the emergence of Internet marketplaces a decade later.

The bottom line for the 20-year-old world of yore is that many passable piece parts were there and they did enable some notable successes from a number of forward-thinking and creative businesses. The winners saw things like Notes as more than an email system. They marshaled the subject-matter experts, content and more to make these first-generation social systems work. But, for most firms, it was just too far to go, too ambitious and too difficult to figure out how to make these a huge success.

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Please continue to part 2 to see what will be needed for the social business to take off now.

Topics: Social Enterprise


Brian is in a unique position to diagnosis the winners and the losers in technology and services. He was the longest running (10 years) and most senior director of Andersen Consulting's (now Accenture's) global Software Intelligence unit - a position that required him to pick the best possible software solutions for hundreds of clients gl... Full Bio

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