Ross Mayfield is the co-founder of SocialText, a Silicon Valley startup that has been pioneering the use of social network tools within the world of enterprise IT.
It might seem that "social" and "business" don't mix well. But that's because those are phrases loaded with social meanings -- an ironic obstacle to what could be a much better way of running a business.
In a recent post, The C.R.M Iceberg and Social Software Mr Mayfield does a good job in spelling out the lessons of social software and the benefits that can be brought inside the enterprise.
One key lesson learned from the success of Wilikipedia, opensource projects, and even Twitter, is the idea of "shared control." This creates great value but it's a concept that most businesses have little experience with, and considerable reservations.
...the tools to share are becoming broadly available and those that use them are at an advantage compared to those that hoard. We see this as a generational shift as the Net Generation comes to work, the biggest global demographic shift in history.
...With Social Software, users can freely share knowledge through private tweets (Signals), activity streams, blog posts, file and media sharing and wiki contributions. The tool is simple, without the constraints of predefined structure and socially rewarding. But of greater import, sharing knowledge happens as a byproduct of getting work done. In-the-flow of daily work, where collaboration is a goal.
Mr Mayfield points out that this was once the goal of knowledge management systems, whose purpose was to extract the knowledge of employees. But knowledge management systems never fulfilled their promise. However, social software can because it works within the flow of a business process.
He speaks of "people as a platform," which is an excellent way to describe the central value of employees.In effect, he is talking about social software enabling businesses to transform their people into a platform.
People are the platform, and when you empower them, great things flow between them. While their abilities can be augmented by automating low level tasks, it is they who best provide the intelligence. Either as individuals or even as collective.
Mr Mayfield says he first saw this happen during the Howard Dean presidential campaign.
In a private wiki, they invited 300 part time volunteers, divided up who would read what and had them share news clippings. A core editor scanned through these clippings, and the conversations that emphasized what was important, and prepared a briefing book. At first the book went out electronically to staff members daily, later twice a day. More efficient and more effective by all accounts, but what I found transformative was how the sourced more, tapped into a collective wisdom, and enabled the editor to do his core job -- analysis.
The key problem for any businesses is changing its culture so that it can use social software within its ranks. Changing culture is one of the most difficult things to do. Once a business has its processes in place, it is as if it is on a train track, and it requires considerable effort to change tracks.
However, competition is a great motivator. If companies start to fall behind because they haven't been able to master the latest social business technologies, then that will provide an excellent tipping point - into the garbage of history or towards a bright future.