I’m an early adopter. I started Christchurch’s first web design company in 1995. I’m onto my 3rd iPhone. But when I first saw Twitter I didn’t get it. I thought it was stupid. Now I couldn’t live without it.
During the 80s and early-mid 90s advances in computer software and networking were largely the domain of the business sector. Business got the best tools first, because they were expensive. Since the late 90s however, it’s the consumer sector that has driven innovation in software tools that connect people.
Why else would it be that it’s easier to find content on the web than documents within the corporate firewall? Why else is it that it’s easier to find and connect with people on Facebook than it is to find the right people to talk to if you’re working inside a large organisation? This is because the development of those tools has happened at Internet scale and speed, far outstripping the ability of commercial enterprise software providers to keep up (both in terms of innovation, and in time to market). New tools get tested by millions of real users, in real time. Everything on the Web is in beta (well, at least until Google recently took Gmail out of beta).
Users’ expectations are now set by Google for search, Twitter for microblogging, and Facebook for social networking. Users in corporates have to wait (often a long time) for their organisations to implement the technologies they can use for free on the Web.
As a term ‘social computing’ could conceptually include everything from email, to document collaboration, to blogging, to wikis, to social network services. For the purposes of this blog post however, I’ll restrict its scope to just talking about social network like services. Blogs and wikis are often referred to as ‘Web 2.0′ technologies, and I’ll leave them there, outside of this discussion. Blogs and wikis are starting to see reasonable adoption in large organisations, even though there is a long way to go. Enterprise use of social networking style tools however is only in its very early stages. I’m picking though that it will be a major trend.
There’s the need here to distinguish between four kinds of uses of social networking tools by organisations:
- Outward market research – using tools such as Facebook, Twitter and the business services and analytics springing up around these in order to find out what the general public is saying about your organisation/brand/products
- Outward customer engagement – using Facebook, Twitter and other such tools to actively engage in conversations with your customers (by having a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account for your company etc)
- Outward employee professional networking - staff using tools like LinkedIn and Plaxo to communicate with their professional networks to ask questions, get help, or recruit new employees
- Inward communication/collaboration - using microblogging, social networking and similar tools inside your organisation to facilitate staff communicating with each other (as distinct from with customers)
People like Jenny Williams from Ideagarden have fantastic insights into the first two, including some insightful horror stories in her brilliant talk at the Alfresco Asia Pacific conference. While I’m intrigued by marketing and customer engagement, it’s not my area of expertise, and the third use is fairly well understood, so in this post I focus on the fourth use, inward communication/collaboration.
The tools that have been used in collaboration and sharing of information in the last decade include email, discussion forums, intranets, document management systems, collaborative workspaces, and instant messaging. All of these have their strengths and weaknesses. They are useful, but often fail to achieve what they set out to from a knowledge sharing perspective. This is caused, I argue, by the fact that their boundaries and structures are defined by the managerial, functional, or project structures in organisations, not on the way that humans evolved to communicate. Humans evolved communicating in relationships and networks of mutual trust, using narrative to convey and create meaning. It’s how our brains are wired.
Social computing emulates this, using explicitly defined trust relationships between participants. The ‘friend’ relationship in Facebook, and the follow/follower relationships in Twitter allow us to control who hears and sees what we have to say. It’s non hierarchical and the links are controlled by each individual, not by managers or a top down imposed corporate structure.
The promise of social computing applied to inward communication may well overcome many of the failings of knowledge management initiatives. It will do this by making it easier to find out who knows what, who’s doing what, and who’s working with whom. It shifts knowledge sharing from a ‘collect and codify just in case’ paradigm, to a ‘connect and communicate just in time’ one. Knowledge is captured naturally as a part of work, rather than forcibly through management edict.
I have a client, a NZ University, who’s recently rolled out Yammer. Yammer is a cloud computing based service for in-company social computing. It uses the organisation’s email domain as the filter to keep each company’s social network restricted to that company. It provides Facebook style profiles and Twitter style microblogging. In my client’s case, it took off like wildfire, as staff invited their colleagues. Where the organisation has had to use top down change management to get staff to adopt things like document management, and the intranet, this system promoted itself. Yammer seems intent on further integrating into the enterprise, with their release of an Outlook plugin.
Ning, SocialCast, and SocialText Signals are other examples of cloud solutions that let you set up your own social networks. Cloud based solutions will be interesting to some organisations, others I think we’ll see implement social computing behind their firewall. It wouldn’t surprise me if Sharepoint 2010 includes more of this type of functionality. Vendors like ConnectBeam and products like Lotus Connections, SocialText Signals Social Software Appliance and Vignette Social Media are already providing this.
Young people now entering the workforce have spent their teen and university years using social networking tools to relate to each other and manage their lives. They will want access to the same kind of tools in the workplace.
So, my prediction, enterprise social computing is going to be big in NZ, in the 2010/11 timeframe.
Acknowledgements of ideas that influenced this post:
- Jenny Williams for her thinking on the comparison of KM to Social Computing (slide 33 in this presentation)
- Dave Snowden for his many recent podcasts about social computing
This is the third in a set of posts on NZ information management trends:
- OpenSource ECM
- CMIS will save us
- Enterprise Social Networking
- Doing Sharepoint wrong, and right
- Structured Data
- Toes in the mist
Next up, Sharepoint.