It’s easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles of new tools. 

But if you acknowledge your employees are your business's most important asset, you put the focus back where it belongs. To help your employees thrive, you need to think less about the bells and whistles and more about how to provide them with the most amount of value — for the least amount of change.

Less is More When it Comes to User Interface

Most employees don’t want yet another tool — they just want a way to find the information they need so they can get their work done quickly. 

For social business software to succeed, it needs to help those employees by surfacing relevant, timely and complete information without burdening them with yet another technology to learn. Smart systems need to provide that information to the employee wherever they are, when they need it and on the device — be it smartphone, tablet or wearable — of their choosing.

To achieve this goal, companies and vendors alike need to de-emphasize option-heavy features in favor of interfaces that feel as invisible as possible. Search that is both fast and accurate, context-aware systems that push the right information at the right time, and lightweight tools for both mobile and wearable devices that can be accessed by a gesture all hold a lot of promise.

Augment, Not Replace, How Employees Work Today

A software salesperson once described to me how his company had replaced an old (and hated) CRM system with a new, more elegant system. 

The problem? Most of his account data was still stored in the “old” system. So even after the new system was deployed, he and his colleagues had to continually refer back to the original system to support his customers.

Businesses are built on data. And that data's value lasts long after the system or technology that was used to create and capture it has become obsolete. Especially in the enterprise, legacy systems — even those messy, heavily customized and often disliked ones — need to be embraced head-on whenever a new system is deployed.

Executed properly, this is where social business software can shine — provided systems are designed not as “yet another app,” but as tools that can be deployed alongside existing legacy systems in a way that doesn't require huge data transfer projects.

Social Tools Should Integrate with ALL Types of Data

Many social business tools provide an environment to facilitate the ideas, feedback and comments that lead to creating a deliverable. These context-rich conversations provide a path to how and why the deliverable was created.

However, conversations can take many forms — and they often flourish when the least structure is placed upon them. 

When asked which collaboration tools his company used the most, the general manager of a consulting firm in San Francisco answered, “post-it notes and United Airlines.” His most important goal was to ensure that his employees were working as creatively and fluidly as possible with one another, and the frequent travel ensured vibrant, face-to-face conversations with his customers took place.

The challenge with many social business software systems is that attempts to impose some order on the discussion — so that the information can be captured properly — go too far and enforce too much structure. 

I once encountered an organization that had recently rolled out a social business tool. They were caught up in an argument about whether their project data should be stored in a “group,” a “discussion” or a “place.” The tool was placing unnecessary restrictions on the way conversations would flow — and this simply doesn’t work. The organization cancelled the entire project several months later.

Instead of imposing new restrictions on how data should be entered, vendors need to accept that conversational data frequently comes from all types of sources: from email and text messages to phone calls and yes, even post-it notes.

ROI Isn’t Just for the C-Suite — Prove Value to Employees

Business managers and executives need rich, up-to-date dashboards so they can accurately plan engineering projects, execute marketing campaigns and make sales forecasts. However, if the data powering those dashboards isn’t accurate or frequently updated, those dashboards provide limited value. So it’s important that the employees who provide that data see immediate value to themselves in doing so.

We once encountered a pharmaceutical representative whose team had (quietly) purchased a small, easy-to-use sales database they used for their day-to-day operations, because the “official” tool provided to them by IT was too cumbersome. Team members would then occasionally place some token data into the corporate system as was required by those higher-up in the organization — meaning that the reports generated by that system didn’t accurately reflect what was really going on.

How can these scenarios be avoided? Tools need to provide clear and tangible ROI to every user in the system — especially to those in the field who are providing the most data to it.

You Don’t Connect Two Islands with Another Island 

Social business tools need to evolve from standalone apps into bridges.

One promise of social business software is that it will help organizations reduce the volume of email they process every day. The motivations behind this hope — reducing information overload on employees, and capturing that information for the business — is both understandable and valuable.

However, when a tool is positioned as a replacement for an existing communication channel, the danger is that this can very easily lead to the “tumbleweed” scenario in which employees don’t adopt the new system. 

When a company attempts to ignore their existing data landscape when rolling out something new, they often succeed only in creating another “data island” — one that is used at first by early adopters and other explorers, but that is then quickly abandoned in favor of those original tools.

Legacy communication and collaboration systems absolutely have their problems and new social business tools frequently provide a user experience that is light-years better. In addition, these tools can often help capture this information and turn it into a format that can be searched, shared and better utilized which helps companies better serve their customers and become more competitive.

But these tools can’t be created in a vacuum and delivered as a standalone system that requires employees to learn “yet another app.” They need to be deployed in a way that respects an employees’ existing workflow. 

Social business software tools can and do provide incredible value, but they need to continue to evolve from social business software applications into a true social business layer that complements the way employees are already working.