Why social business is different - Part 1: Reusing stored collaboration

Why social business is different - Part 1: Reusing stored collaboration

Summary: Enterprise social media is often touted as a more modern and capable way of communicating that is inherently more open and transparent. Yet it's the ability of these tools to keep collaborative alive and thriving over time that provides much of the value to businesses looking to retain worker knowledge, train up new hires, and get the level of reuse that they ought to from their hard-won organizational experience.


Stored collaboration is the key to spreading useful knowledge more than just far and wide, but over the longest possible useful period of time. As managers and executives increasingly look at the potential of social software to improve collaboration and connectedness amongst their workers, I've been seeing the same old questions arise in a newer, more senior audience. Namely, it what way are social business tools really different from the communication tools that are already in the hands of their workforce today?

The problem of course, is that enterprises have been rolling out new IT solutions for decades, too often resulting in limited on-the-ground adoption or unsatisfied users. If so, then will it be different with social software is the concern (as it is in general with the advent of user-controlled information technology that I'm referring to as CoIT)?

Some observers point to the runaway growth of consumer social networks as proof that there is something significant and unique -- both qualitatively and quantitatively -- about the vast global impact of social media in the world today. I've proposed previously that it was their formation in the relentlessly competitive landscape of the Internet has led them through stepwise refinement to tap into the power laws that make highly connected networks produce the richest results.

Others have pointed out that successful social networks enable extreme ease in connecting people together and helping them share with virtually no friction to the entire process.

Using social media for real work

While these benefits appear to translate fairly well into the enterprise, the fundamental question we must ask is whether we can successfully, broadly, and repeatably transplant the success of consumer social networks into our workplaces, for business objectives. When we are given new tools that seem to closely overlap with existing tools to get work done, it can be easy to fall into analysis paralysis and default back to what we know. How can we be sure we're focusing the use of social media on something that will provide actual value?

Attributes of Traditional and Enterprise Social Media

In the end, we are ultimately the most familiar with the business tools that we use on a daily basis. Thus most of us are all too familiar with the drudgery of in-person meetings and phone conversations, or worse, the endless teleconferences or e-mail most of us have to endure as the seemingly necessary tax of collaboration. We're still accustomed to picking up the phone, rather that moving conversations into new social forums so that everyone can benefit from the outcome. Recently though, many of us have added social networking to our portfolio of communication options at work, even though it's still piecemeal in many organizations. These social networks might be LinkedIn, Facebook, or increasingly our enterprise social networks within the workplace.

Right now many of us use social tools as a shorthand form of older types of traditional communication. The actual volume of this new type of individual communications is smaller, yet the conversation itself will often be longer, perhaps years in some collaborative scenarios. The audience in social processes is also larger and frequently unknown since the default for social media is to share with everyone. But where it gets particularly interesting from a business perspective is that our musings, questions, and status updates also hang around for others to learn from. And they do for so for a very long time. This can have very significant positive business impact given that collaboration is the key activity of knowledge workers, which create the bulk of of the value in most large companies.

Much has been made over the last few years about how open and transparent social software is and that it will help us remake the way that we organize and communicate within the enterprise (see the Middle East in the first quarter of 2011 to see how top-down control can be impacted by social media). I find that while the openness factor is certainly true, the transparency process in most organizations is a longer one than most participants envision (though interestingly, it's almost never disruptive or uncontrolled.)

Rather, where it gets compelling is the part where communication and collaboration is much more efficient and long-lasting within most types of social media, consumer or enterprise. The push vs. pull models of information sharing and cooperation has been explored in great detail by others, most by notably John Hagel and John Seely Brown. Social media relies more on pull, which drives down the overhead required to communicate and collaborate by a significant amount as ongoing collaborative processes are discovered and joined by those that have a stake in them, while others are excluded automatically (by not having opted into the discussion when it started.)

Harvesting stored failure and success

But as JP Rangaswami recently noted at the Social Business Summit last month in Austin, social tools now allow us to store failures and successes in a highly useful way that was never really possible in more private or closed collaborative settings. Because social communication is both openly participative and open-ended, it allows us to store collaboration openly on the network (internal or external or an organization as needed) indefinitely so that it may continue to provide value to the organization. Crucially, stored collaboration can then be brought back to life at any time as new participants discover it, join in, ask questions, and continue the discussion.

Related: The Facebook imperative for the enterprise.

In this way, this view of stored collaboration gives us a key additional insight into why the new models of social business (which is the application of social media to the workplace) are uniquely different. And, this is what has proven remarkable about social media in general; that it is based on simple, straightforward patterns of communication that when kept undiluted or interfered with at their core, can enable people over networks to attain real leverage and scale to their business efforts, as evidenced by the attention that leading social networks get today.

Enterprise 2.0 strategists are often given to admiring the simultaneity (asynchronous nature) of social media, meaning that a larger percentage of people are working at any given time, as opposed to merely listening (as in a traditional 50 person conference call, when only one person can speak at a time.) But it's also that collaboration isn't artificially truncated and can proceed naturally as long as participants are interested in it that is just as important. Stored collaboration can be reused beyond the initial collaboration to teach, inform, train, orient, and retain knowledge for an unlimited time -- months and years afterward -- instead of expiring unseen and with little value in e-mail accounts, phone calls, and elsewhere. As the early adopters of Enterprise 2.0 have discovered, a great deal more collaboration is visible and discoverable on social intranets than non-social ones.

In other words, those organizations that let their expensively generated collaboration 'evaporate' or get trapped in IT silos will reap the lower ROI in accordance to their lack of respect for the outputs of knowledge work.

Longevity Of Social Collaboration

How long-lived collaboration will provide value depends on the manner in which you're applying social media to your business problem. In Social CRM, customer conversations and support issues never quite end but are refined and evolved as new participants discover the original discussion, add to it, and assist each other. On a social intranet, a project or a business process lives forever, initially as a place to get the work done but then as a never ending blueprint for future such work, or an ongoing post-mortem, or even a place for others to extract best practices or gather lessons learned. Stored collaboration is the key to spreading useful knowledge more than just far and wide, but over the longest possible useful period of time. Ultimately, such living social business histories will form the bulk of a businesses collaborative landscape in most organizations.

Finally, to make sure we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, I should be clear that real-time collaboration is still useful in some scenarios, but it is stored collaboration that is strategically invaluable. Ultimately, long-lived collaboration will form the majority of usable and accessible knowledge in an organization, just like the Web has become the largest resource most of us have to understand the conversations and collaborations across the rest of the world.

Note: I'll be examining the under-appreciated aspects of enterprise social media over the next few weeks as I share my latest industry observations and research in social business.

Please leave you comments and observations in Talkback below and I'll reply as appropriate.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Collaboration, Software

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  • All modalities of collaboration should have longevity

    While it is true that social media today has greater longevity than traditional modalities of collaboration such as phone calls, email, IM, and even in person meetings it is also true that the vast majority of collaboration at any workplace takes place using those means because they are easy to use. Endless scheduled meetings required to get everyone on the same page are drudgery but from a modality perspective it is often far easier to talk with people in person to have rich interactions (and get work done) than it is to have lengthy, non-real-time back and forths via message postings on an activity stream.<br><br> The technology exists to enable the collaboration space to evolve enabling collaboration using any of the modalities you mention- but adding longevity, push and pull models, and the creation of relationships to systems of record for each for each in a unified manner. Being able to combine these methods together with new modalities that are real-time and simultaneous is something achievable and valuable for the social enterprise.<br><br>Simple examples include having a phone or video call that is recorded, transcribed, and annotated (at any point), or being able to chat in real-time while collaborating on a document and having the full communication persisted and available in a social context. For in person interactions, taking a picture of a whiteboard or recording a voice memo on a mobile device and posting it to a shared and conversation captures knowledge and provides the benefits you describe.<br><br>My point in sum is that technology should provide the same longevity to all collaboration, whatever the modality.
    • RE: Why social business is different - Part 1: Reusing stored collaboration

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  • RE: Why social business is different - Part 1: Reusing stored collaboration

    Your "attributes" chart is interesting but leaves out a critical aspect of communications; accuracy. To survive peer review, communications research must include some sort of measure of the likilihood of message receivers perceiving the sdame message the transmitter intended to communicate. A misunderstood message is potentially much worse than no message at all. Academic research often measures this as a channel's messsge "ambiguity". with face-to-face having the least ambiguity because of its richness of clarifying clues in addition to just the words spoken (voice inflection, facial expression, body lauguage, etc.). Live audio-visual is the secod least ambiguous, telephone is second, and email (and all your highly touted social media channels) are the most likely to be mis-interpreted.

    It is also useful to note that many of the advantages you correctly site about social media also apply to the original "social medium" - the watercooler or break room -- and the number of people fired for spending too much time "collaborating" there.
  • Culture as the bedrock

    Facebook and other social networking platforms have shown us the value of "sharing". This has helped the practice of knowledge management - where once documents were hoarded and tightly guarded, these days it is frowned upon. With the right culture in place sharing can indeed unleash "stored collaboration" - but it does require that cultural shift.

    One quibble with your chart - do you really see crowdsourcing offering (exponential) value over and above social crm? I'd see it lower. But it's minor quibble - great insight!
    Gavin Heaton
  • RE: Why social business is different - Part 1: Reusing stored collaboration

    Collaboration Culture or Enterprise 2.0 ? Which comes first?

    Can any enterprise benefit from E2.0 initiative? Does an enterprise have a character which dictates how much value it can leverage from Enterprise 2.0 initiative? Are some enterprise naturally collaborative? Are there enterprises where only point to point communications work?

  • Why limit yourself to the organization?

    One interesting observation is that most of organizations-related writing always takes as an underlying hypothesis, a closed organization.
    Beyond the Fourth Revolution, the power of social media will open the organization. It is important to leverage the power of social collaboration within the organization; it is even more important to leverage the contribution of supporters outside the organization, to give them a way to contribute to the social network of the organization, to feel part of a community.
    I believe your excellent article still suffers from this underlying thought of organizations as closed bodies. What's really exciting is to see how organizations will open themselves and become more fluid as social networks expand. Welcome the Open organization of the Fourth Revolution.
    Jeremie Averous
  • RE: Why social business is different - Part 1: Reusing stored collaboration

    A thing to note. Social media tends to encourage sporadic, low volume communication (twitter conversations, Facebook status conversations). In a business context, does communication/collaboration of such minimal volume constitute "knowledge"?

  • RE: Why social business is different - Part 1: Reusing stored collaboration

    Note: Ill be examining the under-appreciated aspects of enterprise social media over the next few weeks as I share my latest industry observations and research in social business.<br><br>I'm really looking forward to it. I for one don't like some aspects of social media.

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