Reconciling social computing with the enterprise

Umair Haque wrote an impressive tract on his Harvard Business blog late last week about Twitter and how it changes the rules of innovation. It’s an incisive and challenging piece that well worth reading if your looking at cutting-edge business trends. It also helps surface what’s turning into an increasingly larger gap between what happens in the business world and what happens everywhere else. Here are six strategies to help you reconcile these two worlds.
Written by Dion Hinchcliffe, Contributor

Umair Haque wrote an impressive tract on his Harvard Business blog late last week about Twitter and how it changes the rules of innovation. It's an incisive and challenging piece that well worth reading if your looking at cutting-edge business trends. It also helps surface what's turning into an increasingly larger gap between what happens in the business world and what happens everywhere else.

It will sometimes be a challenge to find the right metrics that help you to drive decisions about your social computing behaviors that improve the business. Jeff Jarvis and Michael Arrington made similar points over the weekend about process vs. product, ostensibly about their particular industry (journalism) and how social processes are competing -- often more effectively, though very differently -- with traditional, non-social "product" creations, namely news stories. As we'll see, you can find similar examples of this now in many other industries. The key point: The processes involved in how we accomplish our daily work are being transformed by social tools on the network. Along the way, the act of work itself is becoming more of a collective journey instead of a final destination as our individual work experiences become more open, collaborative, participatory, and social.

The net result is often better and richer outcomes, though the journey can occasionally devolve into a less-than-deterministic result that can be (for the time being) rather unsatisfying, though rarely does it come to a complete stop until everyone who wants to has a crack at it.

On the other hand, the classical way of working has been to create finished, perfect-as-possible outcomes (products, services, etc.) from opaque, unknowable, lengthy processes which outsiders, within or outside the organization, could not directly perceive, alter, or improve. As Jarvis writes of traditional work methods:

It is the byproduct of the means and requirements of mass production: If you have just one chance to put out a product and it has to serve everyone the same, you come to believe it’s perfect because it has to be, whether that product is a car (we are the experts, we took six years to tool up, it damned well better be perfect) or government (where, I’m learning, employees have a phobic fear of mistakes - because citizens and journalists will jump on them) or newspapers (we package the world each day in a box with a bow on it - you’re welcome).

The key point here is the broader changes we are experiencing today: The pervasive presence of social software and today's highly open, interactive, and remixable Web embedded deeply into our personal lives is increasingly allowing us to experience a new way of living. And it's one that bears less and less resemblance to the workplace all the time, with significantly differing behaviors, skills, tools, and expectations. This situation creates a delta that, sooner or later, will simply become untenable for many organizations. We simply aren't keeping up with the pace of change, never mind that not all workers are experiencing the change of the modern world the same way or at the same speed. Media sharing sites, social networks, and social tools have become embedded deeply in a large percentage of people's lives, just as long as we remember it's not everyone.

This increasing distance between these two worlds creates a gap -- a disconnect, even -- that increasingly cuts organizations off from their most valuable assets (their people) and also exerts a subversive force on organizations as their workers help themselves to the tools of their own volition, bring their (and arguably better) new behaviors and processes to work, and try to get things done with them, whether that's crowdsourcing, Enterprise 2.0, online customer communities, etc.

So what will happen? Will there just continue to be a growing chasm between the worlds of business and how we do things outside of work? Or will the gap just become too large to sustain, with an equilibrium shift suddenly taking place in some way that creates what I'll call (for want of a better term), a social singularity.

Singularities are popular topics with tech audiences. Read about technology singularities and Internet singularities.

A social singularity would be embodied by a convergence of our social behaviors, skills, tools, and expectations between the workplace and our personal lives (and any other distinct settings). In practical terms, these different environments will never be exactly identical, but in a singularity they would be far more similar than they are different. In other words, it's the effective collapse of the barriers separating our work habits and personal habits for engaging in group behavior (i.e, team work, collaboration, etc). When it takes place, it would simply reflect the realization that we are both creatures of habit as well as prefer to use the easier/best tools for the job.

The evidence for social computing changes

In my talks on Web 2.0 in the enterprise, I usually review now well-worn stories of how the network effect of social systems often displaces more traditional systems in the workplace with surprising speed. These are simple examples of singularities taking place. These include how AOL's Office Wiki platform quickly and largely displaced Documentum, how CIA's Intellipedia began draining participation and knowledge from official systems of record, or how Doritos has steadily been using crowdsourcing the last few years with thousands of customers to create some fairly impressive results using open business processes. There are many others.

Many of them also show that social computing can be adopted but that they also tend to upset the apple cart. In particular, constituencies that have a stake in doing things the old way are disrupted by new social models for achieving those same business objectives, whether the replacements are highly collaborative work processes or the network co-creation of product designs and other outputs (aka Product Development 2.0).

That's certainly not to say that there are nothing but success stories. Fellow ZDNet blogger Jennifer Leggio recently covered the 9 largest social media failures of 2009, which underscores a key point: Organizations won't trumpet failures and unless the efforts are visible on the Web, the stories often go untold and the lessons unlearnt. Ironically, we'd all learn a lot more about mistakes (which you often learn more from than successes) if only business were more open and social. And that's the point. Most organizations, despite impressive adoption numbers over the last year of the tools for social computing, are generally failing to appreciate the widening gap between the way they operate and the changes in their workers and the wider world. One small example: In the last couple of months, social sites have become more popular even than e-mail in the U.K. (only Internet search is more often used than social apps), a seismic change indeed, but one in which we ourselves can barely process the implications of, much less the enterprise.

So what's an organization to do? Are there strategies that can help mitigate the seemingly growing tension, take advantage of new skills and behaviors of our workers, and avoid potential for sudden and/or unexpected changes in our businesses? In fact, is it even possible to intentionally encourage and adopt bottom-up processes? Fortunately, based on the experiences of those that have adopted them, there do seem to be some general strategies that can help.

Strategies for reconciling social computing and the enterprise.

  1. Don't plan for a specific outcome, plan for a successful new process. Social computing in business (and everything it encompasses such as Enterprise 2.0, online customer communities, etc.) isn't about figuring it all out ahead of time, it's the exact opposite. It's a process of engagement in which the process itself is the star. It's not even until everyone is involved do you even know what needs to take place. Transforming specific elements of a business intentionally can certainly happen, but social tools will create a successful process jointly with customers, workers, and partners that will continue to evolve and change based on reality on the ground.
  2. Consumer approaches to social computing are usually different than enterprise approaches. I just talked about a singularity converging upon business and the rest of the world, but there's also no denying that businesses are unique environments in their own right. Rarely do we see the tools, behaviors, and processes of social computing be identical to the consumer Web. They often have their own distinct requirements and flavors. Security, for example, is just as important (if not more so in a world so open and social), different capabilities are required. Two steps are often the way to proceed, create smaller internally communities, learn from them, and then create a more permanent one with the right ingredients.
  3. The more control you give up, the more value you set free. The impedance that top-down management structures create is a vacuum where things won't happen until decisions are made. In a social computing environment, you have much more access to ideas and inputs to make decisions, even partially formed decisions and decisions-in-process that can be encouraged, directed, approved, or even discouraged. Rather than holding on too tightly to the reins, allow broad margins for workers to operate within with clear mandates on critical parameters for your organization. Healthy, open processes can't exist where freedom isn't maximized to the point of best return. Leaders in the organization can then involve themselves selectively into the transparent, social processes of their organizations, tap into the best ideas, and nudge activities in the direction they wish while understanding that they can never understand and control it all.
  4. Social computing literacy differs dramatically by worker, department, and industry. I do not advocate social approaches for their own sake, but the reality is that different parts of the same organization or even entire organizations often have a low social computing maturity. This either puts some workers at a disadvantage in the modern workplace or it puts the entire company at risk if the bottom-line benefits (growth, profitability, efficienty, productivity, etc.) are continue to be borne out. (So far, the story is encouraging). Be aware that just like everyone had to undergo basic office computing literacy 20 years ago, everyone needs to go through social computing literacy in today's workplace. This isn't a huge body of knowledge, but it's essential to ensure that workers (and even entire companies) aren't left behind and can function well as the workplace evolves in the 2.0 era.
  5. Measure your social computing returns; understand the value you are receiving (or not). As I suggested in my Enterprise 2.0 ROI post recently, measuring return on investment of IT solutions is one of the hardest things to do. But formal ROI might not even be necessary. Understanding key social media metrics such as your blog post-to-comment ratios across your organization, the number of social messages sent daily by workers vs. e-mails, how many wiki edits are made, etc, to get a sense of what is happening and to provide feedback and balance to participants. Counting the number of new product ideas coming in via social channels by customers and how many of those make it into your products (and in turn, if those products do better) is yet another good example. Organizations will all be different and measurement turns blind adoption into something that you have conscious control over, even if it will sometimes be a challenge to find the right metrics that help you to drive decisions about your social computing behaviors that improve the business.

I would love to hear the stories of ZDNet readers that are encountering social computing tools and initiatives in their business. Please relate any stories that you can in Talkback below.

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