Setting the Stage
First of all, a cool-headed assessment of these social collaboration tools reveals them to be nothing more than a combination of pre-social collaboration approaches, with a few social metaphors included. The 20th century collaboration basics are there: group or project contexts used to limit access and visibility to possibly private contents, a document-centric sharing model, a symmetric social relationship between invited group/project members, and various communications mechanisms, like chat, direct messaging, and the activity stream concept from "consumer" social networks. These are not purpose-built social tools intended to leverage what we know know about social network dynamics: they are retreads.
So is the answer to just create slightly better social collaboration tools? Can we just build a better social layer? Well, we need a better approach to social, but it would have to be based around the needs of 21st century business, and the collaborative model of work is better suited to the last century.
But even if we developed a new social layer based around 21st century principles -- what I call cooperation tools -- the "social layer sitting horizontally across vertical enterprise applications" is at best a stopgap, and at worst undermines the marketplace's appreciation of social theory, because it's an architecture designed by enterprise software companies to suit their interests, which are to convince enterprise IT to buy company-wide, one-size-fits-all solutions. This is good for the vendors, perhaps, but it's not clear that it's good for their clients.
My view is that deep and narrow social tools -- perhaps integrated with vertical enterprise applications and even other deep and narrow social tools -- are likely to provide the best productivity and resilience in those companies that use them. As a result, best of breed solutions -- social CRM, social HR, social software development, social design and so on -- are likely to be best for the specific constituencies that use them.
Central IT planning tends to disparage solutions like this, overly stressing the costs and confusion of many systems, and the problems associated with fragmentation of information. My counter is that this argument is 20th century thinking, putting too much weight on the hypothetical benefits of scaling up use of broad and slowly changing infrastructure. Today we are in a time when the different functions of the business need to be able to rapidly innovate independently of the others, and in a world where everything is IT, that means each group (and maybe each project or initiative) may need to choose its own technological infrastructure. This is perhaps the most critical example of pushing essential decision making out to those who are doing the innovation, instead of centralizing the power to say no in the CIO's office.
What are these new forces pressuring business today? The most nutshelled answer (each of these points could be an essay of its own) is this extreme condensation of my three forces (3F) model:
- The tempo of competition and complexity has risen to a new "beyond chaotic" pace, and is increasing.
- People are connected by both open and enterprise tools to an unprecedented degree, leading to the paradox of a connected workspace supporting a decentralized, discontinuous and distributed (3D) workforce.
- The rise of wide scale ubiquitous foreground computing (what is mistaken called "mobile"), and high and broad scale background computing (cloud, SaaS, big data, etc.).
And then the likely responses of business to these forces are the need to find new sources of agility, innovation and responsiveness; more tolerance of ambiguity, uncertainty, volatility; and decoupling and diversity as a way to avoiding systemic impacts of unexpected events. In the final analysis these new capabilities require changes at the organizational, operational and behavioral levels. And, by behavior, I mean that individuals must change their personal and interpersonal behavior: that is the last inch of any cultural change.
Zooming in on Curation
A business cannot -- by definition -- operate at a pace or scale larger than the cognitive reach of the people that make it up. Yes, they are supported and augmented by systems and software, but unless sense making has become autonomous, decision making and innovation still involves human understanding. So the challenge of responding to a radically changing economy comes down to a change in business operations as different from what we now consider traditional is from pre-industrial work. This can be considered as the end of the diminishing returns that industrial-era businesses achieved by scaling mass production around routine work processes, and a new economy based on scaling cooperation around flexible social networks.
In this article, I want to focus one one aspect of cooperation -- curation -- as an example of this increased social scale in business. By increased social scale I mean an overall increase in the number of connections the average person has in the business, and a loosening of the strength of connections, in general.
Before expanding on those ideas, let me use an example of curation that many will have already experienced. Twitter is perhaps one of the best examples today of the "strength of weak ties" as the social network research Mark Granovetter put it. A Twitter user, Bette, might follow a few hundred people on Twitter. Now, some of these are IRL friends of Bette, but the majority are not: they are celebrities, authors, well-known thinkers and journalists, people that Bette does not "know" at all. However, over time, Bette reads their tweets, clicks through on their links and gains access to information and ideas because of following them that perhaps may have not reached her by other sources, and specifically, would not have reached her through her IRL friends.
All other things being equal, a network in which there are more connections will lead to a faster spread of new ideas, and there is some evidence to suggest that the natural filtering of implausible or untrue information means that good ideas and plausible news travel more quickly, too. Increasing connections in business can be thought of as increasing its reflexes: its capacity to sense and respond to opportunities or threats.
So there is an incentive for businesses in an environment of high information density and tempo to grow more connections. However, there is a countervailing need, too. The people in an organization cannot spend all their time reading and writing messages, and trying to assimilate the new information into their immediate work plans: they have to spend the majority of their time -- at least most of the time -- accomplishing work tasks: closing sales, writing software, designing graphics.
This suggests a segregation in the new workforce, one based not on rank or roll in an authority-based power structure, but one based on centrality in a network-based information structure. Centrality is a social network research measure that represents the degree to which a single person is connected to others in the network. Since every person is connected to a specific subset of the entire network, everyone has their own network, in a way. And relative to our discussion, some people are located -- as Ronald Burt characterized it in his research -- next to "structural holes" in the network. This means that they are uniquely positioned to bridge relatively disconnected parts of the network together, perhaps when no one else does. Burt considered this to be a measure of social capital that such individual's have, as a result of their unique location in the network.
There is a specific version of centrality, called betweenness, which is the measure of a persons connection to all other people in the network. For example, if I am connected to a large number of people that are members of different parts of the overall network -- if I have connections in Europe, Asia and across the Americas, for example -- then I am, in a real sense, positioned so that the entire network is smaller than for other people.
A person having high betweenness means that new information appearing anywhere in the network will likely reach that person first, and then, if they redistribute that information, their followers will learn of that information sooner than non-followers.
What about the Tools?
Knowing this theory has promise means that companies -- and vendors of enterprise software -- should be looking at putting these ideas into practice. But are they? Do today's social business applications help to surface the newest and most critical information? Do they help the average user find and follow other users with high betweenness? Are those with the greatest capacity to transmit critical information across the organization provided with specific tools -- curatorial tools -- to help fill that role? Are they empowered to act as a broker to make sense of that information as it appears? Sadly, this is really not the case.
Some of the technologies that are called "social business" tools don't even allow users to follow other people. In those that do, many do not surface information about how connected people are, and none that I know of does the necessary network analysis to determine user's centrality and betweenness. This is a glaring example of technology racing ahead of science: developers whose background in programming and product designers with no grounding in social network theory build products that leave the science out.
The final rhetorical question then, is this: What would a smart solution look like? One widely-used but poorly understood example is Tumblr, which is not widely used by business people, at least those over 24. Tumblr has a very rich model of tagging, and the role of editors -- curators in a topic area, like design or tech -- who curate posts made by others, surfacing those that they consider noteworthy or innovative. I am not an editor myself, but I understand that editors have access to a slightly augmented user experience that supports the activities of an editor: in essence, voting in favor of posts that should find their way to the curated stream that they are affiliated with.
So, my bet is that innovative social business applications of the near future will incorporate something like Tumblr's model of curation, and that algorithmic, math-based techniques will be employed to discover those with greatest betweenness, and tools will be put in their hands so that they can make the world a smaller place, literally.
Of course, new business operations and corresponding human behaviors will need to be reworked around curation as a key part of what's going on. Tools will have to be reworked to break down some of the strictures of collaboration. Cooperative tools, in which on-confidential and unregulated information can float more freely in the organization is key, because otherwise the possibilities inherent in information that is locked in a silo today, for no particular reason, will remain latent and never manifested.
Are We There Yet?
One of the reasons that progress seems to proceed in a "slow, slow, slow, fast" manner is that the various elements of change are all tied together. Organizational, operational and behavioral inertia dominate, like tumblers in a lock, and then, after a period of little apparent progress, the teeth in the key settles into the right orientation, the tumblers drop and the door opens.
In this specific case, we won't see the real big bang of social until all the pieces line up. We'll need narrow and deep social tools, better mechanisms for social scaling, like curation, and the reorganization of organization, operations and human behavior around 21st century challenges and skills.
Title image courtesy of higyou (Shutterstock)
Editor's Note: To read more from this month's focus on what's next for the social enterprise, see Harold Jarche's Social Business Needs Social Management