Social Business Software: 2 Sides of Disruption
Disruption can be seen as a force for good or evil. On the one hand the business world celebrates the disruptive effects new social business technologies are having on the status quo -- in everything from marketing and customer service to recruitment and sales. On the other, when it comes to internal collaboration and communication, social business software (SBS) is seen as disruptive in that other sense of the word -- a distraction from the job at hand.

Ironically, its success in this area is being frustrated by something far more counter-productive. While every worker complains endlessly about their email inbox, it is nevertheless the communication devil they know and is therefore difficult to unseat, despite its inefficiencies.

We’re Sticking with Email

A plethora of reports will tell you how inefficient email is -- according to McKinsey’s we spend up to 28 percent of our working time pushing email around. As a tool it seems perfect for cluttering up your day with the wrong information and yet quite poor at distributing the right information to the right people at the right time.

The failure of email to achieve meaningful productivity is a common theme. In its day, asynchronous email communication revolutionized collaboration in a world dominated by the telephone -- but that was two decades ago. The same McKinsey report tells us that social business tools inject at least 20 to 25 percent additional productivity -- if allowed to fulfill their potential.

Why Aren’t Social Networks Gaining Adoption?

In a very useful analysis of the reasons why social technologies aren’t seeing rapid adoption within enterprises, digital workplace consultant Jane McConnell looks at how social technologies have been deployed in the wrong place. Once social technologies begin to be used for operational tasks -- in other words “real work” -- then they will be far better appreciated from a “business value” point of view.

Businesses currently deploy them as an overlay atop legacy intranets -- which are designed for storage and publishing of information and much less for internal collaboration and communication. Intranets are often structured according to organization as opposed to project, and so as intranet-overlays, social business technologies are relegated to an ancillary role -- focussed on “meta-work” (i.e. work about work). As a result they can be seen as disruptive to core tasks rather than helpful.

One of the reasons for the poor deployment of social business tools is that the biggest software vendors focus their design on the technology and competitive pressures, rather than people. Returning to the theme of disruption, social business design consultant James Dellow questions whether it really is disruption if it doesn’t disrupt what we do. We are not allowing social technologies to disrupt the way we work, all we are doing is introducing another layer of distraction.

“Designing for digital disruption means placing people at the center of the conversation,” wrote James, as he argued that we need to see ourselves -- as workers -- as part of a network and not cogs in a machine. Email serves our role well as cogs in a machine, but it serves us poorly in our role as part of a network: it sequesters information and isolates our knowledge in an antiquated stand-alone application.

Just Stick a Social Layer Onto the Intranet, Right?

Turning intranets social is the most common approach for many software vendors as they attempt to adapt to a new social dynamic. But as Salesforce founder Marc Benioff has said, “Microsoft SharePoint? It’s like my grandmother’s attic. What I put in there I can never find.”

Intranets were designed as repositories of information, or knowledge management tools. They serve as company storage drives for sharing confidential information. Like the internet, they have sprawled and become vast behemoths of information, badly structured and poorly used. By applying a social layer to help people share that information doesn’t necessarily mean that employees are now communicating and collaborating. This places technology at the center of the design process, not people. It disrupts nothing and only distracts, while we continue to use email as our central collaboration tool.

Prominent examples of the problems facing the large established Intranet vendors (as they scramble to become "social") can be found in the shortcomings of the development roadmaps of both Microsoft and IBM. (Indeed Gartner in its recent “Social Software in the Workplace” Magic Quadrant Report cautions about the development strategies of both.) It can be argued that the two have sought to overlay “social layers” atop some of their legacy solutions. In IBM’s case, there are clear weaknesses in the way it has cobbled together products such as Lotus Notes, Domino and WebSphere into a “social” platform. Equally, the way that Microsoft acquired Yammer with a view to "socialize" Sharepoint is fraught with problems.

These are just two examples that show how the design focus of some of the most established vendors gets confused and conflicted by other strategic concerns. Technology and competitive imperatives have overshadowed people as the raison d’etre for many of the social business technologies prevalent in the marketplace. As a result, their record of user adoption has damaged future uptake and ensured the continued reign of email.

Intranets and other IT systems that have been "made social" are often seen to struggle when real business scenarios are required to target, communicate and collaborate with various groups of employees.

Social Works Best When it Plays to Collaboration Strengths

From a methodology point of view we need tools that centralize productivity in one place rather than enable more and more distraction. For instance, enterprise social networks provide advanced employee workspaces that consolidate tools such as knowledge management applications, task management features, calendar and event integrations, day-to-day workflow integrations, sophisticated activity stream filters and cross application search cataloguing all in one place. 

While intranets are essentially about information storage, enterprise social networks are about communication and productivity. The two are as different as a reservoir is to a canal. Just as a canal needs all kinds of infrastructure such as locks, dams and weirs to manage the flow of water and traffic on that water; so ESNs require all sorts of tools to govern the flow of information such as policies, standards and controls to regulate how the information is communicated and to whom.

ESNs use modern social dynamics to disrupt the working day by making it far more productive and reducing the need to multitask across poorly integrated solutions.

Putting Social Front and Center Ensures Disruption, Not Distraction

Companies seeking greater productivity, collaboration and communication and who want to remove reliance on email should evaluate their strategy. They should challenge their IT departments to consider deploying genuine social business tools and commit to effective change management to overhaul user habits; rather than just buying ineffective social “overlays” and updates that are designed only to upgrade existing, legacy tools intended for different purposes.

Like using horses to tow a motorcar, we have the tools to radically improve the way we work, but we aren’t implementing them correctly. These new social business tools should be used to constructively disrupt the old technologies -- as well as our working habits -- and not just distract from the work at hand.

Title image by Stocksnapper (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Anthony, see his The Enterprise Social Network Cultural Collision