Making the Right Case for Social Business

Our mandate at 451 Research is to analyze the impact of innovative and disruptive enterprise technologies. We look at social business in all its forms -- be it team collaboration, file sync and share, workforce management, etc.

Though we see a lot of innovation, we are not seeing that much disruption -- there is clearly a distance between enterprise buyers and technology vendors right now. It's a gap that we believe can be bridged in a number of ways, but will require work from both buyers and sellers alike.

Some of the technology vendors coming to market hold the position that "socially enabling" employees is a good thing in principal, and that therefore good things will likely happen. Others come from a position that what they see as first generation collaboration tools are in need of replacement, that systems like Microsoft Outlook/Exchange have outlived their usefulness. Yet others come from a position that future workers will demand consumer style simplicity when it comes to corporate communications.

Most of the new technologies approach social business from a mix of these starting points, and almost all believe that collaboration should be possible anywhere, anytime on any device. In some ways it has been a boom market with billions of dollars of investment and now literally hundreds of technology choices available. But few in this multitude of vendors are actually able to turn a profit.

Many enterprises are still skeptical of the business value of social business tools, and even the more enthusiastic often failing to get beyond pilot projects or to get the buy in of more than a couple of departments or work groups. To put it another way, they don't see the ROI (return on invest) -- they don't believe that the investment would deliver a sufficient return to justify it.

The Wrong Social Business Case

The enterprise clients I advise often tell me that there is no real business case for many of these new social technologies. I see their point as many vendors churn out weary old aphorisms like "The average worker spends X hours a week searching for the right information." News alert to vendors: buyers don't give a flying flip to these kind of arguments, they are decades old, based on cod science and have zero resonance.

Vendors who pitch alternatives to Exchange and Outlook to enterprises also have little chance of getting anywhere. Such investments are a sunk and budgeted cost and the potential risk and disruption of moving from something that may be quirky but has worked well for decades just isn't worth the effort. The other canard that typically hits the floor like a lead balloon is a social business startup pitching to an enterprise the story that they "Replaced Documentum, SharePoint, Exchange, IBM, etc." For enterprise IT knows only too well that few things are ever replaced. Instead, new technology simply runs alongside older technology.

The twist to all this? Social business tools have the potential to be one of the best technology investments an enterprise can make. In the right circumstances they can be truly and positively transformative and deliver not only a quick but also a very substantial return on investment. But to do so they have to leave the world of Silicon Valley hyperbole, and enter the real world of working enterprises.

The Right Social Business Case

The industry organization AIIM coined the terms "Systems of Engagement" and "Systems of Record" a few years back. What this means is that some technology serves the purpose of recording, storing and processing data, for example a financial or supply chain application. By contrast other technology serves the purpose of engaging workers, and helping them to communicate together. At 451 we think these are good terms to work with, particularly in forming a business case for social business. The reality in most enterprises is that there is a huge disconnect between their systems of record and engagement. Social business technology that can integrate with and leverage existing systems of record, and essentially mobilize them can be worth their weight in gold.

For example a large and critical SAP, Infor or Oracle ERP implementation typically can be highly reliant on workers to access its data, collaborate on it and make key business decisions. But that assessment and decision-making process is often undertaken via ad hoc activities involving sometimes inefficient and unreliable email conversations or with workers who have no corporate email address or corporate laptop. Far better if that work was undertaken in harmony with the ERP implementation, exposing data via intelligent recommendations, rules and processes to the right person at the right time, in the right place, on the right mobile device.

A simpler but no less impactful example can be to remove the need or desire for workers to copy documents via email or zip drive and move files so that they can work or share information remotely. Practical use cases that enhance existing business processes, and bridge the gap between systems of record and engagement – between existing and long standing technology investments, and the new tricks of the social business tools.

Balancing People, Process and Technology

I have spent my career dismissing ROI calculations as fantasy, and I see no reason to change that position. This is because ROI calculations balance hard, real and quantifiable costs against as yet unproven and potentially fanciful "benefits." That doesn't mean you should not build and justify a business case for new technology investments -- this is essential. A good business cases understands the relative values of people, process and technology. These have long been the three counterbalancing elements of enterprise technology, yet all too often the focus falls solely on technology.

Social business technology in the right hands can help redress that imbalance and bring the focus back to truly involve people and process. Social business technology tools in the right hands can ensure that the right people engage and collaborate, at the right time, on the right process with the right technology. When that happens it's a slam dunk of a business case every single time.

Title image by Roobcio (Shutterstock)