A moment of lucidity

A moment of lucidity

Summary: 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.


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.

Topics: Banking, Emerging Tech, Social Enterprise

Dennis Howlett

About Dennis Howlett

Dennis Howlett is a 40 year veteran in enterprise IT, working with companies large and small across many industries. He endeavors to inform buyers in a no-nonsense manner and spares no vendor that comes under his microscope.

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  • For some clarification


    Interesting points, but I'm here to dispel some of
    your suggestions.

    In this following post, I've clearly articulated how I
    do --and do not-- use social media for research


    It would be great if you could first read this post
    before suggesting I only use my blog for research.

    In fact, the last few months, I've been working on the
    Forrester Wave report on community platforms, and am
    only relying on the 'traditional' forms of research
    that many have done before me --no social media.

    Details here:

    If you get the chance to read my reports, you'll find
    that I reference all my sources in the endnotes --and
    they often reference Forrester data collected by
    formal surveys --not from my blog.
    • Thanks but...

      Thanks for the clarification Jeremiah but I also read the less public stuff as well though your point is well taken. Treat it as 'implied' from the quote marks rather than definitive. It is after all, only an opinion.
  • RE: A moment of lucidity

    Recently I published a piece on SAP skills trends and I was scolded by a consultant who aptly said, in so many words, "yes, but tell me the skills that my customers are going to need in the next five years." Easier said that done, but the point was well taken: he doesn't want my hype about the next great thing served up on a platter of buzzwords.

    What we find these days is that companies are not easily suckered. The vast majority only implement stuff that works, stuff with a clear business case. We could argue that some are too cautious, but the fact remains, there is a very instructive "hype gap" between what we bluster about on our "web 2.0" blogs and what companies actually put to use.

    The interesting thing about a Twitter type social media tool is that you can easily see how having 1,000 "viral" (ahem) contacts can help the "free agent" who wants a marketing platform to get out their latest news and views.

    But you can just as easily see how much it would irritate a corporate line manager to know that some witty dude (or dudette) in a cubicle somewhere had accumulated 1,000 internal followers for their random postings about the unacceptable coffee in the break room or, worse from a management perspective, their stream of consciousness riffing on the latest bureaucratic regulation or TPS report filing deadline. Not to mention why John McCain is a blowhard or why Obama needs to stick to a position. Good times!

    This is my way of saying that I tend to agree with Dennis' skepticism about the value of the viral nature of these media within an enterprise. You already see this with the many companies that have done away with the ability to send corporate wide communications without tiers of approval. Hitting the "send" button is not synonymous with greater productivity. "Wikis for ad-hoc workgroups" is a very different concept than "Twitter for all employees!" The former has some promise, the latter I am skeptical about.

    This brings me back to Facebook as I have been contemplating lately how ill-suited Facebook is for doing business unless you are in the entertainment industry. Every time I look at the new Facebook design and think about business colleagues now landing on my "new" page and seeing the latest "wall" posting from some drunk friend, I cringe. I can't imagine the task of regulating something like that within an enterprise. It also makes me wonder: if Facebook is so desperate to monetize itself that it has to insert a column of screaming banner ads and a lowest common denominator design to replace something that was pretty elegant, you can only imagine the difficulty of proving a "viral" use ROI case within the enterprise.
  • RE: A moment of lucidity

    Actually serial monogamy is old news. Polyamory is a more
    interesting phenom. More analogous to the disease of the
    Social Media folks of which you speak. Polyamorists try to
    maintain "meaningful" relationships, simultaneously, across
    and over complex matrices, some nodes connected and
    aware of each other, some not, some spawning other
    relationships, some not. Sometimes I think polyamorists, like
    social media junkies, are creating a construct that allows
    them to be socially promiscuous.