This month's theme for articles is based on what for me is the most dreaded of words: "social."

I don't dread its constant proliferation and its rather odd use in certain scenarios because I am anti-social (I have no criminal record!), but because I am truly fed up with the “trendy” use of the word and the persistent fallback on its use to describe software products that are somehow new and different. I can share Excel spreadsheets with colleagues via a text-based email client from a Linux command terminal -- how is that not social?

Seriously though, two fellow CMSWire contributors have somewhat beaten me to the punch with their excellent articles. Jacob Morgan chose "There is No Such Thing as a Social Business" as his title. I absolutely agree with the sentiment of his article, but actually I would just say that of course there is such a thing as a social business. All businesses are social (!), unless they are run solely by Artificial Intelligences that only communicate with suppliers’ and customers’ data systems directly.

Ask your friendly neighborhood anthropologist: humans are "social animals" (even psycho killers and terrorists), so of course businesses are social endeavors by definition -- but I agree with how I decided to interpret Jacob's comments, that actually there is no such thing as "social business software," and therefore using a product labeled as such will not instantly make your business a "social" one.

Deb Lavoy goes further and says: "Social Business Doesn't Mean What You Think It Does, Neither Does Enterprise 2.0." In the opening to her article, Deb says that social business is not about technology, or even about corporate culture, but that it is much, much bigger; indeed that social business is about a “sociopolitical historical shift” -- an actual paradigm shift no less! I like Deb's definition of the term, but I think it takes it to a much higher level than most people are thinking about when they use the term social business.

However, I disagree with Deb that the command and control model is "maxed out" or that there is no place left in the world for automation, hierarchical process-centric models, etc. There is not, nor ever has been, nor ever will be a single "one size fits all" model that can be used by every organization. There are many contextual nuances which mean one model will work better than another, and that includes Deb's definition of a social business as being "one that derives most of its value from the hearts and minds of people who work there and the people who buy from them."

Social Media Transforms into Social (Business) Software

Let’s get back to my rant about semantics and terminology for a while. I can just about understand the addition of the word “social” to the word “media” when we consider that conventional publishing or broadcasting were very much "one-to-many" models. The arrival of blog software that was simple to set up and use, and even more simple for the readership to use to post their comments, was probably the start of the "user-generated content" revolution on the public internet, and in that respect it certainly did bring a more social element to communications media.

However, in an internal context within an organization, an enterprise context if you like, this was nothing new. I am pretty sure the Documentum ECM platform allowed me to put a comment against a folder or document long before I saw an enterprise blog or wiki. Source code management systems (like CVS) definitely allowed people to comment on the latest version of source code that was uploaded by someone else. Anyone remember Lotus Notes applications with comments and even user-generated metadata (sorry “tags” in the new social lexicon)??

So are you starting to see why I don't like the way social is being used at the moment? We could collaborate with each other and work in a pretty social manner 15 years ago -- but before everyone flames me, yes I concede the point that it is a lot easier to do now than it was back then.

What Term Would I Use Instead of Social?

Well in an enterprise context, that is a no brainer -- Enterprise 2.0, of course! Now I realize that the use of this term annoys as many people as the illicit use of social does me, and I have also at times revolted against the urge of vendors or analysts to add "2.0" to the end of everything. However, I would argue the difference with Enterprise 2.0 -- especially when used as a label to describe software products -- is the fact that we have two models which describe E2.0, and therefore against which you can assess and measure the functionality of such products.


Professor Andrew McAfee, when he originally coined the term Enterprise 2.0, came up with the SLATES model:

S -- Signals: making information consumption more efficient via push mechanisms, RSS feeds, etc.

L -- Links: the deep linking between information assets using Uniform Resource Identifiers (URI's)

A -- Authoring: ensuring all users have access to easy-to-use authoring tools

T -- Tags: the use of metadata that is easy to understand and use

E -- Extensions: extending knowledge by mining patterns of data and user activity

S -- Search: making all information easily findable

This is a nice and simple model, and you can, as I said, actually use these simple categories of functionality to assess the potential of a product.


However, Dion Hinchcliffe, (now at Dachis Group) decided that SLATES was a little too simplistic, so in a 2007 article on his ZD Net "Enterprise Web 2.0" blog, he introduced an extended model with a bigger acronym: FLATNESSES.










As you can see from the diagram above, FLATNESSES subsumes the original SLATES features and adds:

F -- Freeform: the acceptance of emergence, the ability to create content that is not constrained in either format, nor its message

N -- Network-Oriented: content within applications "must be fully web-oriented, addressable and reusable"

E -- Emergent: able to deal with the "arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems"

S -- Social: OK, obviously I left the best one until last (!!) -- but Dion actually defines social as meaning non-hierarchical and transparent.

Put "Social" into Proper Context

So without seeming somewhat hypocritical, I can accept the use of the term social where it is defined in context, and to return to Deb's article, in my opinion this definition of social, i.e., being non-hierarchical and transparent, is all about organizational culture and not about the software platform.

Sure you can buy software that does not have fine-grained access controls, basically giving everyone create-read-delete permissions to everything (the goal of the original wiki), but it will not be adopted by anyone if the organizational culture does not appreciate, nor understand, how to work with such an egalitarian system. Same with transparency. Sure it should be fine for me to be able to find and read the content of the "marketing assistants" community of practice, but the board don't want me reading (and commenting on) the “secret” content of the senior executives mergers and acquisitions community of interest!

In conclusion, I don't have a problem with the introduction of so called "social software" or "social business software" into organizations; some of it is great and has truly useful features and functionality. It is just that I really have a problem with the use of the word social in this particular context and of course the "this is the best thing since sliced bread" marketing message that normally accompanies said software.

Simply buying and implementing a social business software platform is not going instantly transform your organization overnight -- you know that, you’re not daft, but let’s just consider it mostly for what it is: a bunch of functionality that used to be called "collaboration" software, hopefully with all the functionality described by FLATNESSES added to it.

One last thing -- Jacob, there absolutely is such a thing as an "anti-social" business! They pollute, displace people, they hurt people (deliberately or otherwise) or just ride roughshod on others opinions. Sometimes they pretty much steal resources -- that sounds pretty anti-social to me (and they could still be using social business software to facilitate their “evil” business practices)! 

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