Social business? Déjà’ vu all over again

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?
Written by Brian Sommer, Contributor

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.


Will the social business succeed now?


I found myself pondering this question a lot these two days at Lotusphere/Connect.

First off, the tools are better, richer and enabled with more goodies than ever before. If anything, this alone should prove a positive for the social-business push. For today, the new social tools include fast cloud-analytic capabilities; servers that are massively more powerful; accessibility to vast data stores of traditional and new information is mind boggling; and, richer and more different types of data are solving heretofore unknown business problems. No doubt about it, the technology has clearly improved, adapted, expanded, and evolved.

IBM Connect Lotus 002
(Credit: TechVentive. Copyright 2013. Used with permission. All rights reserved.)

People may not have changed that much though. Yes, most of us have smartphones today. We have different shopping habits. We showroom. We brag about ourselves on Facebook. But, physically and psychologically, I'd argue that we're mostly unchanged. If a person wasn't motivated to create and contribute content to an internal or external social network 20 years ago, are they going to now? Nah...

As before, there is a huge change-management, training, and motivation issue that can stop many a well-intentioned social or knowledge project dead in its tracks. Change is the biggest challenge here and it must be front and center in any discussion of new social initiatives.

Related to change is the network effect. Business leaders have to grasp what their role will be in making these new social systems a success. Several times at this conference I heard customers describe how employees valued the closeness that social systems brought between them and the leaders of their firm. The problem is that hierarchical, command-and-control firms don't like upward communication. Management in those firms likes communications that go one way: Down. They have "people" to communicate with subordinates. Social systems expose this and unless addressed appropriately, it will doom some new social-business experiments.

But, you say, isn't that a bit harsh, Brian? Nope. Just think how you feel when you write a letter to the CEO of a company and you get back form letter #326 from some flunky working there. You know the letter, "We appreciate input from our customers here at Company XYZ. Your feedback is important to us." I hate it when a business is dismissive to me. As an employee, I find a leader's dismissive attitude to workers a major morale problem and a reason for wanting to leave the company. In fact, the number one reason people have for changing employers is to get a better boss. But, if a boss won't join the social network, will the network succeed? It's doubtful. If the boss fobs off all of their network interaction to underlings, will the network succeed? Again, it's doubtful.

I have grave reservations about management changing to meet the requirements of a new social-driven work world. For example, how many of you work for a company where leaders have outsourced the content development of "their" company blog to outsiders? So, here are "leaders" who can't (or won't) articulate the company's vision in a blog post? These are the leaders who are too busy to communicate with the workforce or customers? These are the leaders who can't write or put together cogent thoughts? Outsourcing the leadership component of modern business' social systems is a prescription for failure.

What will drive greater adoption though is that the psychology of content creation has blossomed. Pinterest, Flickr, LinkedIn, and Facebook (to name but a precious few) rely on the fast, easy, and frequent additions to their social "content" that contributors make every minute. They've cracked the code that gets people to contribute, a lot and often, to their social networks. Businesses must learn the best practices from these firms so that adoption, permanent adoption, of the social systems is rapid, transformative, and game changing.

IBM Connect Lotus 003
(Credit: TechVentive. Copyright 2013. Used with permission. All rights reserved.)

Related to the psychology point above is that it is often easier for people to contribute non-textual content to these networks. Pictures, video, music, drawings, and more are now acceptable and possible contributions to the shared data store. Take heed of the age-old expression that a picture is worth a thousand words. If someone doesn't like to write (or write well), can't they at least post pictures of the cool graphics people were drawing on the white board? Images can be some of the most powerful communication and collaboration tools there are. Now, we are surrounded by a rich abundance of tools to capture and share all of this non-traditional data.


So what's the bottom line now?


Today, I'd say the social business has a real, fighting chance. But the biggest challenge now won't be technical; it will be people. Business leaders must change and the social-business champions will need to understand people better than ever to get the adoption and value from these game changers.

But there's one other big point that needs to be made. The "social business" can't be a collection of tools sold by an integrator or software vendor. It has to be a solution that's desired or demanded by top executives. Sadly, some businesses will opt to be the social wallflowers hanging out in the shadows while the social butterflies will be everywhere. Which firm will your firm be? Are you sure your leaders want this, too?

Also read this piece I did early last year on the social business.

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Disclosure: Years ago I was with Accenture (an 18-year veteran) and still own a few shares in the firm. In fact, they absolutely got the knowledge-management concept 20 odd years ago. IBM covered my hotel expense for this show.

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