The current social business architecture -- a social collaboration layer sitting "on top" of non-social functional enterprise applications, like CRM, HR, ERP, a social frosting on a non-social cake -- is not going to meet the needs of 21st century business.
Setting the Stage
First of all, a cool-headed assessment of these social collaboration tools reveals them to be nothing more than a combination of pre-social collaboration approaches, with a few social metaphors included. The 20th century collaboration basics are there: group or project contexts used to limit access and visibility to possibly private contents, a document-centric sharing model, a symmetric social relationship between invited group/project members, and various communications mechanisms, like chat, direct messaging, and the activity stream concept from "consumer" social networks. These are not purpose-built social tools intended to leverage what we know know about social network dynamics: they are retreads.
So is the answer to just create slightly better social collaboration tools? Can we just build a better social layer? Well, we need a better approach to social, but it would have to be based around the needs of 21st century business, and the collaborative model of work is better suited to the last century.
But even if we developed a new social layer based around 21st century principles -- what I call cooperation tools -- the "social layer sitting horizontally across vertical enterprise applications" is at best a stopgap, and at worst undermines the marketplace's appreciation of social theory, because it's an architecture designed by enterprise software companies to suit their interests, which are to convince enterprise IT to buy company-wide, one-size-fits-all solutions. This is good for the vendors, perhaps, but it's not clear that it's good for their clients.
My view is that deep and narrow social tools -- perhaps integrated with vertical enterprise applications and even other deep and narrow social tools -- are likely to provide the best productivity and resilience in those companies that use them. As a result, best of breed solutions -- social CRM, social HR, social software development, social design and so on -- are likely to be best for the specific constituencies that use them.
Central IT planning tends to disparage solutions like this, overly stressing the costs and confusion of many systems, and the problems associated with fragmentation of information. My counter is that this argument is 20th century thinking, putting too much weight on the hypothetical benefits of scaling up use of broad and slowly changing infrastructure. Today we are in a time when the different functions of the business need to be able to rapidly innovate independently of the others, and in a world where everything is IT, that means each group (and maybe each project or initiative) may need to choose its own technological infrastructure. This is perhaps the most critical example of pushing essential decision making out to those who are doing the innovation, instead of centralizing the power to say no in the CIO's office.
What are these new forces pressuring business today? The most nutshelled answer (each of these points could be an essay of its own) is this extreme condensation of my three forces (3F) model:
- The tempo of competition and complexity has risen to a new "beyond chaotic" pace, and is increasing.
- People are connected by both open and enterprise tools to an unprecedented degree, leading to the paradox of a connected workspace supporting a decentralized, discontinuous and distributed (3D) workforce.
- The rise of wide scale ubiquitous foreground computing (what is mistaken called "mobile"), and high and broad scale background computing (cloud, SaaS, big data, etc.).
And then the likely responses of business to these forces are the need to find new sources of agility, innovation and responsiveness; more tolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty, volatility; and decoupling and diversity as a way to avoiding systemic impacts of unexpected events. In the final analysis these new capabilities require changes at the organizational, operational and behavioral levels. And, by behavior, I mean that individuals must change their personal and interpersonal behavior: that is the last inch of any cultural change.
Zooming in on Curation
A business cannot -- by definition -- operate at a pace or scale larger than the cognitive reach of the people that make it up. Yes, they are supported and augmented by systems and software, but unless sense making has become autonomous, decision making and innovation still involves human understanding. So the challenge of responding to a radically changing economy comes down to a change in business operations as different from what we now consider traditional is from pre-industrial work. This can be considered as the end of the diminishing returns that industrial-era businesses achieved by scaling mass production around routine work processes, and a new economy based on scaling cooperation around flexible social networks.
In this article, I want to focus one one aspect of cooperation -- curation -- as an example of this increased social scale in business. By increased social scale I mean an overall increase in the number of connections the average person has in the business, and a loosening of the strength of connections, in general.
Before expanding on those ideas, let me use an example of curation that many will have already experienced. Twitter is perhaps one of the best examples today of the "strength of weak ties" as the social network research Mark Granovetter put it. A Twitter user, Bette, might follow a few hundred people on Twitter. Now, some of these are IRL friends of Bette, but the majority are not: they are celebrities, authors, well-known thinkers and journalists, people that Bette does not "know" at all. However, over time, Bette reads their tweets, clicks through on their links and gains access to information and ideas because of following them that perhaps may have not reached her by other sources, and specifically, would not have reached her through her IRL friends.