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VMware's Social Chief: Complexity Kills

At Enterprise 2.0, Socialcast founder and VMware social software VP Tim Young explains why enterprise social tools must become simpler.

As founder of Socialcast and now VP for social software at VMware, Tim Young thinks it's his job to hold back the tide of complexity.

In his keynote at Enterprise 2.0 in Santa Clara, Calif., a UBM TechWeb event, and in an interview, Young warned against the tendency of enterprise organizations to demand more complexity--like the Fortune 100 company that came to a Socialcast with a request for proposals that included 450 feature requirements. This tome was so dense that it took forever to read and try to understand.

Enterprises think they need that complexity because they are complex organizations, "but you don't fight complexity with more complexity," Young said.

Enterprise 2.0
VMware acquired Socialcast in May, making it the centerpiece of a social software strategy that also includes acquired products such as Sliderocket and Zimbra. A new product for informal project management, Socialcast Strides, is in beta testing, due to be released next year.

Young said one of his greatest lessons in social application design came not from Socialcast but from About.me, the company he co-founded with Tony Conrad and sold to AOL last year. About.me offers a very simple, one-page social profile (which can link to all your other social profiles), but the simplicity is what people like about it, he said.

"What we figured out is that simple tools can be extremely powerful," Young said. Applying that to enterprise product development, "we figured there has to be a lesson here. Perhaps we're deploying tools to people that are simply too complex."

[Learn about better tools to develop your staff with How Facebook Manages Its Workforce.]

To understand the danger, Young suggests reading "The Collapse of Complex Societies" by archeologist Joseph Tainter, and the more recent popular treatment of the same themes, "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed" by Jared Diamond. As with societies, social networks can be driven to their doom with excess complexity, Young argued.

Facebook is facing that danger as it adds features to address user requirements, which could paradoxically wind up driving some overwhelmed users away, Young said. He has tried to apply that lesson to Socialcast, trimming features where appropriate. As part of his keynote, he also showed a simple tool VMware is using internally to gather social feedback. Called Niko Niko (after a Japanese word for a smiley face), the software is based on sending employees a daily email that they can respond to by clicking on one of three icons--smiling, neutral, or frowning. When applied at scale, this provides "sort of a corporate Net Promoter score," Young said.

Though this might seem simplistic, VMware has backed it with analytics that make it possible to see how the mood is trending across departments and job functions. "We're driving an incredible amount of knowledge with this very simple tool," Young said. VMware plans to release the software as a free Web service that can be used with or without Socialcast.

As for Socialcast and other commercial products, Young said customers can judge for themselves whether VMware is following through on his commitment to simplicity. "The good thing about making a public statement about something is it keeps you honest," he said.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr. The BrainYard is @thebyard

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