I consider a Social Business to be one which harnesses the power of social networking technology to aid collaboration and decision making in organizations. I see this as the modern extension of Knowledge Management which was seen in the early part of this century as the consequence of better database solutions, the advent of the Web as we now know it and a way to finally make our work “smarter”. But will Social Business disappear like Knowledge Management, “Knowledgebases”, “Groupware” and other solutions like it in the past?
In the late nineties many computer systems were still focused on making electronic versions of previously physical processes. The emergence of good-quality scanning solutions and processing systems from the likes of Kofax, together with many document scanning solutions from Xerox, IBM (remember Lotus Notes:Document Imaging and the Mass Storage Server, running on OS/2?) made it possible to implement real business re-engineering projects to improve paper-flow, improve accessibility and improve knowledge-sharing. What you chose to do with the electronic version of the physical letter that you received was, of course, still up to you, but at least we weren’t cutting down as many trees to do it (yet more trees seem to be felled every year, but that’s a different question).
So, with our newly-electronic solutions whirring away we found that we rapidly had issues with finding information. We had a knowledge management issue. Somehow it was easier to ignore a scanned image sent to you in email than it was to overlook that letter sitting on your desk. Most management solutions around scanned information replicate the old paper methods. We still do it today with multitudes of folders in our email mailboxes.
We seem to be programmed, if you are over the age of 30, to put stuff in folders. Relying upon your memory to put stuff in the right place in case you later need it has a couple of problems with it, of course. Firstly, there’s the danger that you’ll put it in the wrong place. With a large database of information, whether it’s scanned letters or emails, it’s as well as deleted if you put it in the wrong folder. Secondly, and more worryingly, when you later want to find the information you need to remember where you put it in order to find it. Hence, we have a knowledge management issue.
If ever you were in any doubt about knowledge management being an issue compare the basic use of the internet by a teenager and their parent. The teenager rarely enters the URL for any website. They just search for it and click on the first of a few links. The parent has probably memorized most of the sites they visit and possibly arranged these sites into bookmarks, again carefully arranged in folders, so that they can access them.
Younger people rely upon our ability to build knowledge management solutions to find what they want. Older folks rely on their wits. It’s like a young pilot trusting the GPS to find the airport where the old flyer knows how to read a map and find his way with dead reckoning.
Nowadays most organisations have some form of knowledge management. Most likely in silos which are protected from each other and locked down for individual access only. There’s the file server with the thousands of folders containing often-duplicated files. The folder structure is usually so complex that only the person who created the structure understands what’s there, and … oh by the way he’s off on vacation, so no-one knows where that proposal is. There’s the multitudes of email archives spread all around the organization: some on your user’s computers. Some on the server. Some complete, some duplicating other archives. There’s the intranet or, as we call it, “the document coffin” – where dead documents rest in peace. There’s the line of business solutions that hold their own information in their own unique and peculiar ways and then there’s the personal files that we oh-so-jealously hold onto and probably share with our friends via Dropbox in much more useful ways than the IT department has ever thought of.
If any of this seems familiar, this is the state that Knowledge Management has got us into. We embarked on that voyage forgetting that knowledge comes in many forms and trying to bridge the gaps between them is tremendously difficult. Trying to draw some comparisons and insight across the divides is also difficult. And don’t forget that the biggest knowledge management store – the tacit information in our heads about the best ways to achieve results at work, the best suppliers to go to, the right person to speak to when trying to get something done, etc., is very much siloed and not even in digital form.
So is this the fate that the information revolution has subjected us to? If it is then we have not substantially moved forward from Gutenberg’s invention. We’ve built disconnected strategic libraries of electronic books written in different forms and over time our abilities or desire to unlock these forms and create a single picture of the corporate body of knowledge is disappearing.
What has all this got to do with Social Business, however? Social Business is not a panacea for these ills either. Instead, however, I believe it provides the bridge across the chasms in knowledge management that we now so desperately need.
In the future, we will still get lots of emails. We’ll still have intranets with out-of-date information. The file server isn’t going away any time soon. What Social Business does to cross to the other side is provide techniques and approaches which allow us to uncover what we already know.
Using a corporate portal and some enterprise search tool will provide a mechanism to let you do a broad search across the organizations’ silos provided you know what you are looking for. We know how frustrating it is when we need to find a form of words to type into Google when we’re searching for something unusual. The same is true here. Social Business changes the paradigm of knowledge capture and aggregation to make what we know, what we scan, what we collect malleable, publishable, central and intelligent. That might sound very high-minded so let me give you an example.
In a recent blog post on my blog I demonstrated how SugarCRM and IBM Connections can be integrated. This “Social CRM” solution implements some cool APIs and other connectivity to provide deeper insights on a contact, account, opportunity, or other information. When I open an Account in Sugar, the connectivity between the systems provides supplementary information about Activities, Wiki entries, blog posts, and people who relate to this information. Let’s say that I have an upcoming meeting with the customer and need to find someone who has specialist knowledge for the meeting. The integration between the two allows that to happen.
This approach can be repeated across many systems. ERP, Document Management, Project Management and lots of others can be “socialized” to help you make better decisions in the business processes you already follow.
How, though, would something like Connections be able to provide you with this information. How does it know that Fred in Production is an expert with that particular customer’s issue. Enter the social network.
The explosive growth of social networking is clear for everyone to see. Rumors of its demise persist, but like the demise of the cinema, have been greatly exaggerated. When young people take to Facebook with such fervor and are essentially turning Facebook into the internet then I think it is clear that the “social model” in computing is definitely something which suits the human condition.
Here’s the change that we as a working population need to make. To continue to work with discrete information, like Word documents, Emails, Spreadsheets and proprietary closed systems will not do any more. We will not progress as a species by continuing to do so. Gutenberg gave us the major leap for mankind. We are merely taking small steps for man here. We need to work in a more social manner
We need to prepare a tender response not in dozens of revisions to a word processor document but instead in a wiki where multiple authors can work simultaneously on the same or different parts. We need to stop filling out meeting reports and call notes and instead record our observations in a less formal, but equally useful way in micro blogs or fully-fledged blogs. We need to realize that many business processes run right across the organization and are not just a set of individual tasks that different departments take.
Most importantly, however, is that we need to realize that the most effective way of working is as a team. Like-minded individuals who come together to a central place to share and collaborate gets work done. Would the railroads across America have been built by now if all the laborers just picked a part of the country to work on and got on with it in isolation?
I believe that the combination of smarter systems to unlock the silos of information together with the adoption of new social techniques in daily working life will allow us to move forward. It will provide both the ability to capture what we know and also to find what we knew easily. It provides the mechanisms to be the social animals that we are, with the structure we crave.
So does Social Business have a future? I think it does. In fact I think it has to have a future if we are to continue to reap the benefits which Gutenberg unlocked for us so long ago.