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Social Software: It's The Design Criteria That Counts

I recently presented at the ECAR Symposium 2006 event in Phoenix, AZ on the topic of social computing. The session was entitled: "Social Computing: From LifeStyle To WorkStyle" and focused on the trends I've observed in the social software space. While much of the media focus is on the technology aspects of social software (e.g., blogs and wikis), I've been more interested in examining its related organizational dynamics and the manner in which such software can help facilitate more effective relationships and network connections within enterprises (assuming that the organization is aligning its human capital management efforts with what the technology can enable). Often I find that the consumer market is also an interesting environment to examine given that many of these tools remain emergent within the large enterprise.

To over-generalize what happens:

•    Consumers begin to use socially-oriented sites for their own purposes
•    They end up sharing content more easily with friends, family and so on
•    Along the way they discover that they can find information and activities that are of interest more rapidly
•    And in doing so, they continue to connect with other people, forming relationships, communities, etc.
•    Which persuades them to create, customize, and extend their own social environment which in turn…
•    Encourages reciprocation; adding value back across their associated networks, groups and communities

You can find similar communication, information sharing and collaboration patterns within enterprises around a variety of activities and work practices within business processes, projects or cross-functional communities. Studying consumer patterns and correlating them to possible use case scenarios within a business environment is a pragmatic approach that can benefit enterprise strategists. There are similarities that people can learn from and apply internally.

•    Workers use tagging and social bookmark tools to capture and organize information for their own purposes
•    The public and accessible nature of tags and bookmarks enables workers to share information more easily with other co-workers
•    Other workers that rely on such tags and bookmarks to find information in turn, post about such information in their corporate blogs  
•    Other workers that subscribe to the RSS feeds of that blog read the commentary on the information originally captured by the tags and bookmarks and create a wiki to begin co-authoring a report for a project where that information happens to be very relevant
•    Other project members connect from the wiki to the blog to the bookmarks and discover that there are many other people in the organization that have similar interests or are involved in similar activities
•    The person who originally tagged and bookmarked the information shares additional resources that has been collected with the project team and begins another wiki in parallel that acts as a community site for those involved in similar projects across the enterprise

Warning: This is a dramatic over-simplification but the point is that consumer and enterprise usage patterns are often similar and consumer practices are fodder for enterprise brainstorming efforts.

The other interesting item to note is that the technology manifest typically defined as social software (blogs, wikis, and such) is really not exclusive to a particular set of vendors (yes, that means BEA, IBM, Microsoft or Oracle can play in this domain). To me at least, when it comes to social software, what we are seeing is not a new, permanent class of tools but the emergence of a more modernized set of design criteria for people-centric software than what we had years ago (more on design criteria in just a moment). It is true that smaller vendors are taking advantage of the sluggishness exhibited by larger vendors that need to carry forward a certain amount of legacy functionality. But that’s really nothing new. Smaller vendors have historically been more agile than large enterprise software players. But it takes more than a first-mover advantage to survive in the long run. While traditional vendors are often slow to evolve, the resulting solution that does appear includes key capabilities that are required within large enterprises (e.g., security, identity, compliance, and integration). There are areas where smaller vendors are typically weak at supporting. Often, smaller vendors become part of the ecosystem stack of these larger players by either: filling specific gaps, extending basic platform capabilities or by providing a set of vertical applications. An example of this is SocialText’s SocialPoint integration with Microsoft SharePoint Products & Technologies.     

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, when I suggest that what we have here is a new set of socially-oriented design criteria for people-centric software, what exactly does that consist of? The list I have at the moment includes:
•    Collective user experience*
•    Informal, serendipitous interactions*
•    Group and network connectivity via attention data  
•    Self-organizing participation
•    Network-influenced findability*
•    Community-determined credibility
•    Spaces that become places
•    Multiple personas
•    Recombinant* (e.g., mashups)
•    Intrinsic to lifestyle*

Where "*" are attributes I had written about earlier this year in a paper published to Burton Group clients on social software trends. The others items are more recent additions.

So where will this lead? Here are some of my beliefs:
•    Senior leadership of any enterprise will adopt more socially oriented work models, organizational practices, and management methods designed to more clearly value the role, influence and contributions of workers
•    Policy makers must reflect on the risks and governance implications associated with socially-oriented systems
•    IT decision makers must re-assess everything from design methods, and development practices to the software used for communication, information sharing and collaboration

And as always, social computing and social software are no excuse for a lack of due diligence when it comes to:
•    Security
•    Identity
•    Records Management
•    Integration
•    Interoperability
•    Vendor viability and other risk factors
•    Governance

And, of course, as outlined in my earlier post on “Do People Matter?”, there are significant organizational dynamics that need to be considered.

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