What's the future of collaboration, exactly? More to the point, what's the future of collaboration in the enterprise?
You might be tempted to think there are no easy answers, but on the contrary, it might be closer to the truth to say the answers are right in front of us. It might be a hoary old cliché, but the future really is — wait for it — here today. In consumer products. The consumerization of IT is far from over, and there's a few key currents in consumer usage patterns that we really should pay attention to.
These days you could do a lot worse in predicting enterprise collaboration trends than simply looking at the consumer market and connecting a few dots to see what works with users. It's not apples and apples, surely — Snapchat is about as likely to find enterprise support in a large insurance company as Richard Sherman is to be tweeting fond check-ins with his bestie Michael Crabtree at a charity event this winter — but certain things are worth watching. Specifically, when you see a consumer groundswell that transcends specific demographics — say, of age, device form factor or even both — you should stand up and pay attention.
Where do we see these important trends? With Facebook. But not, perhaps, in the way you think.
What Would Facebook Do?
It's been a news cycle or two since all the frenzy around the Princeton study that foolishly made use of a single data set to predict Facebook's irrelevance, as well as the social giant's own amusing riposte. These stories captured our interest for a heartbeat in the days just before Satya Nadella made Microsoft cool again with a snap of his poetry-reading fingers. Lost in all the furor of first "Really smart people say Facebook is dying" and then "correlation DOES NOT EQUAL causation (so maybe they're not that smart after all)" was the context of the thing itself.
Princeton erred, yes, but not simply in correlating the frequency of Google search data with relevance. Princeton erred by missing the entire context of what Facebook has become and how Facebook has grown — a context that has direct implications for enterprise social collaboration platforms.
Princeton's entire argument rested on the premise that Facebook's fortunes could be predicted — apples to apples, as it were — by tracing the fortunes of MySpace, the online social network that preceded it. This premise, as it turns out, is terribly flawed in a way that matters very much for enterprise IT. And as the Jesuits who taught me the foundations of logic would happily remind you, you cannot build a winning argument on even a single flawed premise. It's the weak brick in the foundation, the "Rocky Raccoon" and "Piggies" that kept the White Album from being great (you would not find any tracks so weak on Revolver or Sergeant Pepper, for instance).
MySpace and Facebook both found their initial population boom with teens, with youth. Both surged to popularity as social networks for young people — but that's where the similarity ends. Because MySpace peaked before the worldwide explosion of mobile. MySpace never grew beyond young people, never embraced their parents and grandparents. And MySpace never really learned how to monetize itself until it was far, far too late.
Facebook — unlike MySpace — thrives in a world of mobile with a development strategy that gives mobile apps equal (if not greater) weight than the traditional desktop browser. And Facebook — unlike MySpace — is still growing and thriving specifically because your mother-in-law is on it more often than your teenage daughter.
Mobile matters. Demographics matter. Money talks. The enterprise is listening. Listening well.
Familiarity Breeds Usability
Look at Yammer, as just one example. Microsoft's cloud-driven social network takes a couple very important cues from Facebook in both these areas. A development strategy that places a focus on mobile apps and mobile friendliness puts Yammer in the pocket, and/or on the tablet, of every enterprise user with nothing more than a quick download-and-install from their App Store or marketplace of choice. Not just Microsoft's own Windows Phone and Windows 8, but Apple? Android? Yammer is there for all of them.
Similarly, a great deal of unnecessary angst goes into corporate fears around aging users and their perceived resistance to enterprise social. Interestingly, most of these "aging users" are very bright information workers. They didn't stop talking to their kids and grandkids when those people started sharing pictures and thoughts on Facebook — they went there to look and to listen.
Yammer's interface takes a lot of its navigation and real estate clues from Facebook, arguably for the simple reasons that it's known and it works (whether or not they'll admit it, but that's academic at this point). Familiarity breeds usability, as we've said before in this space, and that has surely played a role in Yammer adoption (which evidence says is growing strong).
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