Social computing is changing the world -- but there's a problem.

shutterstock_73437757.jpgAt a global level many have commented on the role which social computing appears to have played in the Arab Spring revolutions sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. In 2011 US President Barack Obama said in an address on Middle East and US policy,

…Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organise like never before. A new generation has emerged. And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied… In the 21st century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.” (Barack Obama, 2011)

At the national level the use of social computing is challenging established laws. For example in the UK in 2012 a national debate was sparked by the case of footballer (soccer!) Ryan Giggs who obtained a court order protecting his anonymity with regard to an alleged affair, but who was then named in the House of Commons by Member of Parliament John Hemming who said,

With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter it’s obviously impractical to imprison them all.” (Telegraph, 2013)

The case drew comment from the UK Prime Minister, and the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge who said, “Modern technology is totally out of control.”

At the individual level the adoption of social computing is a worldwide phenomenon which is changing the way that people spend their time and interact with each other and with providers of consumer goods and services. It is estimated (Statistic Brain 2013) that in 2012 Facebook reached 1.2 billion users worldwide, over half of the world's internet users and approximately 17% of the world's total population. Video sharing website YouTube claims over 490 million unique users per month and Wikipedia hosts an estimated 17 million articles.

In 2006 an article by professor Andrew McAfee was amongst the first to highlight the use of social computing at the organizational level (McAfee, 2006). That article coined that phrase “Enterprise 2.0,” to describe a new generation of organization which embraces the use of social computing technologies. The article concluded with the cautious and balanced claim that,

Enterprise 2.0 technologies have the potential to usher in a new era by making the practices of knowledge work and its outputs more visible. Because of the challenges these technologies bring with them, there will be significant differences in companies' ability to exploit them. Because of the opportunities these technologies bring, these differences will matter a great deal.”

Since 2006 social computing within the enterprise has become one of the most important strategic considerations for business leaders and managers and it is one of the fastest growing software markets. In November 2011 Forrester Research predicted that the market for enterprise social network software will reach US$ 6.4 billion by 2016, up from US$ 600 million in 2010 representing a compound annual growth rate of 61 percent (Forrester 2011), and in January 2013 IT Industry analysts Gartner Research predicted that enterprise social networks will become the primary communication channel for noticing, deciding or acting on information relevant to carrying out work (Gartner 2013).

The case of enterprise social networking service provider Yammer illustrates the rapid rise of enterprise social computing tools and the perceived value of the market. Yammer was launched in 2008 and by 2013 boasts seven million corporate users, including employees at 85 percent of Fortune 500 firms. In 2012 Microsoft acquired Yammer for US$ 1.2 billion.

Today the enterprise social computing industry is awash with wild claims from guru-consultants, hero-managers, trend setting industry analysts, the executives of software vendors and service providers, and commentators from a variety of backgrounds. A recent book by two consultants from the marketing firm the Dachis Group includes the claim,

Everything that can be social will be social … I firmly believe that’s the mantra of 21st century business and the key concept we must all internalise to achieve our best possible futures.” (Hinchcliffe and Kim 2012)

On Twitter Mark Fidelman promoted his book on "social" with dramatic claims such as, "Analog companies are going to be swept aside by digital companies” and “Evolve your company or join the ash heap of history’s failed organizations.” Mark's LinkedIn profile positions him as, "…A recognized expert in creating sales and marketing machines.” Daniel Kraft, President and CEO of software company Newsgator, was quoted on Twitter as having said, "If you don’t embrace social then you will be out of a job…”

So What’s the Problem?

Despite the gold rush and hysteria for all things "social" there’s confusion and disagreement over the definition of many of the concepts, there is little reliable evidence that investments in "social" deliver any business value at all, let alone to support the hysterical claims made by some people, and no one seems able to provide a coherent explanation how or why "social" works.

In January 2013 Gartner Research published their predication that eighty percent of social business efforts will not achieve intended benefits through 2015 (Gartner 2013). There's evidence to support these gloomy predictions, in their 2012 book Gartner Research consultants Anthony Bradley and Mark McDonald reveal,

One of our more striking discoveries is that most social media initiatives fail. Either they don't attract any interest or they never create business value.” (Bradley and McDonald 2012)

Even the staunchest advocates and evangelists for "social" admit that they can't explain the value proposition. Buried deep in the later chapters of their book Hinchcliffe and Kim admit,

The benefits [of social business] are very difficult to nail down because they are difficult to measure.”

In a presentation at the Microsoft SharePoint Conference 2012 in Las Vegas Adam Pisoni, CTO of Yammer, said with regard to "social,"

It’s about openness that facilitates connections ... openness drives discovery and that’s the value… That’s not something that you can measure on an ROI basis.”

In a 2012 article on the Forbes website written by Mark Fidelman a prominent CIO is quoted as saying with regard to the use of social computing tools in his organization,

You can’t stop it. Once you make it available to people on the right platform the magic happens ...” He goes on to add, “… If people ask me to quantify in euros or dollars what the platform has delivered to us -- I tell them to look at the change of mindset, the open information sharing, and how quickly information passes around …” (Fidelman 2012)

Have we really reached the stage in this industry where we believe in magic and are happy to make investments the returns from which we are completely unable to measure or explain?

In March 2012 software vendor Jive tweeted,

New #socbiz study; there’s proof of hard ROI & payback on social collaboration technology.”

The "proof" turned out to be a whitepaper produced by Jive which detailed the results of an "independent" study carried out by a management consultancy on behalf of Jive (Jive 2013). This is a very strange use of the term "independent"! A few days later Yammer produced an equally as disappointing attempt at evidence in the form of survey results claiming to show how Yammer clients were generating business value from the service (Yammer 2013).

These reports fall short of the standards for genuine research. There is no clear explanation of the data collection methods used, the sources of the data, or the methods of analysis. At best they can be viewed as customer satisfaction surveys, at worst they can be accused of being marketing propaganda. In my opinion this type of material is counterproductive, few executives are naïve enough to believe this type marketing material presented as "research."  It just makes them more sceptical.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the problem with "social" came in an off the record conversation when a senior executive from one of the world’s leading "social" vendors admitted to me,

We don’t know why [enterprise social networking] works ... the academics haven’t worked it out yet … all the evidence we have is anecdotal …”

So What?

I believe that social computing has the potential to be a powerful and perhaps transformational management tool that can create value and deliver observable and measurable benefits. But I also believe that, “A focus on business value begins with purpose, because purpose is the basis for assessing value” (Bradley and McDonald 2011), and that being "social" is not a business goal.

In short if you can't define it, you don't understand how it works, and you're not sure what you're trying to achieve with it, then your chances of success are limited. 

I support Microsoft's call to "Go Yammer," but not just for the sake of it. I want it to work, to be seen to work and for the value creation process to be understood so it can be explained and managed. 

I also just like to know what I am talking about.

Last year I signed up for the Doctorate of Business Administration (DBA) programme at Henley Business School and I’ll be spending the next four years researching enterprise social technologies. Although it’s very early days I am starting to form my ideas and have the beginnings of a theory which I’d like to share with you in this "Knowledge is power" mini-series.

Over the next few months I’ll be exploring exactly what we mean when we talk about "social." What are Social business, Social computing, Enterprise 2.0, Enterprise Social and the rest? What are the differences between them? Does it really matter? And do we really care?

I'll also be presenting a model which attempts to explains the different ways in which social computing can create value in organizations, and explore the structural and cultural environment that managers need to create to support the use of the technology. Trust me. I am a social scientist.

Now, where did I put my Bunsen burner and my white lab coat?

Image courtesy of Angela Waye (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Symon, check out his The Art of SharePoint Success series.