March 21, 2012
From Micro-Blogging to the Fully-Networked Enterprise
By: Alex Kass

Enterprise Social Collaboration (SoCo) technologies are rapidly maturing from their origins as internal corporate versions of the public, consumer social-network services, like Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and others. What’s emerging is a new kind of collaboration platform, which we see transforming the way enterprise knowledge work gets done.

Unfortunately, while the technology has been evolving, the thinking about how to use the technology has not always kept pace, so let's review what's been changing and why: Enterprise SoCo began as a new channel for sharing thoughts within the enterprise: The initial focus was on supporting blogging / micro-blogging, and discussion groups, and using the social graph to channel shared thoughts to relevant/interested participants throughout the enterprise. This conception of enterprise social proved useful, but not as earthshaking as the impact of social networks has been outside the enterprise.

To understand why an evolution was needed to drive more impact, let’s look at the two premises of public social networking services:

  1. Most sharing in consumer social networks happens by someone taking time away from their day-to-day activities to go onto a collaboration platform and write a blog entry or status update.

  2. Content on consumer social networks is consumed by someone take time away from their day-to-day work, to go onto the collaboration platform and read what others have written.

While these assumptions led to incredibly rapid adoption of consumer social networking, they didn't work nearly as well within the workplace: Experience has shown that while a few dedicated blogger-types will actually take time from their day-to-day activities to produce content on these networks, most employees can’t, won’t, and perhaps shouldn't. Most enterprise knowledge workers are very goal/task-oriented while at work. As a result, within the enterprise, social technology is unlikely to see heavy, sustained use until going onto the social collaboration platform leads directly to getting day-to-day work done more effectively and efficiently. This is exactly the evolution we’re now seeing in leading SoCo platforms: By combining social technologies with key knowledge management and groupware functionality, they’re becoming comprehensive cloud-based social collaboration platforms. In particular, we’ve started seeing enterprise social networks augmented with functionality like task and project management functions; collaborative document authoring; customizable team pages that serve as collaboration cockpits; wikis the can be used to share (and even crowd-source) everything from meeting notes to group mission statements; and integration with the desktop, enterprise, and cloud- based applications knowledge-workers already use. Instead of places knowledge workers go when they can take time away from your day-to-day work, they’re becoming places that they go to do their day-to-day work, and the means through which important information about that work is systematically shared, with very little effort on the part of the sharer. The point of adopting SoCo in the enterprise is not to create an enterprise of bloggers, it’s to leverage the social and interest graphs to drive actionable awareness of what others are actually doing.

The potential benefits are far-reaching:

  • Providing distributed teams with fine-grained awareness they need for effective coordination of day-to-day activities;

  • Helping members of adjacent teams to maintain the systematic peripheral awareness of what related teams are doing they need to ensure alignment;

  • Allowing colleagues across the enterprise - or even the extended enterprise, including customers, suppliers, and contractors – who may not even know each other, to avoid duplication of effort, and seize opportunities to join forces which might otherwise have been missed; and

  • Giving management the birds-eye view they need of the collaborative activity patterns within their organizations.

We’ve begun using one of the leading SoCo offerings to carry out our own R&D work. So let us give just a couple of small examples of the impact we’ve felt on a day-to-day basis.

  • When one of us needed to assign a task to another team-mate, we used to send an email. Now we use the social collaboration platform’s ‘create task’ feature instead. When tasks are completed, that’s logged on the platform as well. In addition to adding a bit of structure, making it easier to track, and making it less likely that the task will simply get lost in the email stream, this approach has the benefit of making the work we’re doing much more transparent: Team-mates can immediately see what’s on each other’s queues and management can get continuous visibility on status. And most excitingly, the social features of the platform mean that people we don’t talk with much, but who either follow one of us, our group or track a content tag attached to the task see it as well: Maybe they’ve already done something similar, and add a comment about lesson learned, or maybe they know someone else who has a need for what we’re working on.

  • When we co-author documents we store them on the social collaboration platform, and use MS Office extensions that integrate Office with the platform. This means that we are using the tools we’re used to, but our work in progress is visible from an early stage. Tags we attach to the document can bring it to the attention of some relevant colleagues, and the platform’s content-based recommendation engine brings it to the attention of other. We can benefit from the enhanced awareness of what we’re doing as well as the early feedback we sometimes get from colleagues we may not even know have expertise related to our content.

The examples above are representative of two key modes through which these platforms share our day-to-day work. The first is SoCo Platform as Web-Based Workspace, where features like wiki’s and web-based task management supported directly by the platform are used to do work (which is then shared as a matter of course). The second way to achieve frictionless sharing is SoCo Platform as Collaborative Data Hub, where work is done in other desktop or enterprise applications, which have connectors to the SoCo platform, allowing activity performed in those other applications to be shared through the platform’s social network.

The evolution of SoCo is far from complete. These platforms are becoming very multifaceted beasts, and no single vendor’s offering leads every facet. The platforms don’t easily interoperate, so companies adopting the technology still need to set priorities carefully and make tough choices. At a deeper level, the entire SoCo community is still learning about how to make the most from combining social technologies with collaboration and knowledge management at scale. As knowledge work increasingly moves onto these platforms, a number of questions will become increasingly important. For instance: When the content is spreadsheets, marketing plans, product designs, and actions related to those, as opposed to the clever thoughts, happy-birthday wishes and cute photos that are shared on consumer networks, how should that content be routed, filtered, presented to support various forms of collaboration while avoiding information overload? What mechanisms can be used to shape the way users interact with these systems to provide maximum benefit? How can the flow of knowledge work through these platforms be used to provide management with useful insight about what the collaborative activity patterns look like? As SoCo vendors, their customers, and R&D labs like ours gain more experience with these platforms, and develop increasingly sophisticated answers to these kinds of questions, we expect the power of these systems will continue to grow dramatically.

The success of the modern enterprise depends, as much as anything, on the ability to bring the best thinking to bear on every project and problem. Geographic distribution and organizational silos can make this especially challenging. We use the term, ‘Fully-Networked Enterprise’ to describe companies that have the ingredients to overcome those challenges. Of course, technology is only part of the puzzle: it’s most crucial to have the right people and culture, but it’s also critical to make it convenient for those people to co-create, coordinate team activity, stay abreast of developments in related parts of the organization, and to learn from each other. The newly-emerging social-collaboration platforms promise to provide the technology needed to make the fully-networked enterprise a reality.

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