I've been spending more time than usual thinking about the value we're getting from our internal platform -- how best to describe it, can we get any more, etc.
And, slowly, I'm starting to build a mental framework for what we're seeing here.
Incremental vs. Substitutional Value
OK, so I"m making up some new terms here. This is new stuff, so I feel I have the right to do so!
I'm now describing "substitutional value" as something we did before, but now we're doing it more effectively. Value is created through doing the same thing as before, only doing it better.
Examples might be having a team discussion on the platform, as opposed to a lengthy set of conference calls, or an in-person set of meetings. Or posting something on a wiki, rather than emailing it (and all its updates!) to a very long distribution list.
At another level, what you're asking people to do is essentially do what they did before, but do it a different (presumably better) way.
In terms of effort, substitutional value seems to have two barriers -- one, the natural resistance to changing an established process, and -- two, enough of a critical mass of proficient users who'd be comfortable doing it the new way.
We can address the second issue by simply getting more and more people comfortable -- and preferring -- interactions on the EMC|ONE platform (as opposed to concalls or whatever).
But the first issue requires a visionary who's willing to put in the effort to drive process change towards the new tool or platform. And we can't really engineer directly for that.
Is creating value through substitution effects a good thing? Sure -- I'll take whatever I can get -- but in the big scheme of things, it might pale behind another form of value generation.
I'm now using the term "incremental value" to describe good things that just wouldn't have happened without the platform. They're not replacing something else we're already doing, they're entirely new things.
A connection made between disparate people with similar interests who can help each other. A workforce that knows more about the company and the industry than before. A quintessential feeling of connected-ness that wasn't there before.
Better decisions and outcome because more people participated, not just the invitees or the distro list. Smoking out unforseen problems simply because we posted a plan in a transparent, visible place and someone said "did you think about ...?"
Now, understandably the world isn't black and white, just interesting shades of gray. And, when we point to something that's generating value on EMC|ONE, clearly there are elements of both at work.
But, that being said, the incremental value elements that we're seeing are far outweighing the substitution effects. And that requires a certain imagination from people who are considering this approach, but haven't seen what it can do.
They tend to think in terms of what they know -- only done better. And it's harder to imagine things that we're not doing at all.
I remember several years ago when EMC was first creating a globalized workforce. The argument of the day was "cost effective expertise", e.g. save money. But the reality was quite different -- we got a vastly talented workforce that could do things in a way we couldn't do in the US, and -- to boot! -- did it in a very different time zone, enabling round-the-clock work.
You go looking for one thing, and you find another, more wonderful, thing.
Content, Conversations and Communities
Way back when -- almost a year ago -- when I set out the priorities for our internal initiatives, I elevated the concept of "community" to the top of the value stack, so to speak.
From my point of view (at the time), there were different levels of social media goodness:
- publishing information that was searchable, taggable, editable, etc. -- yes, that was nice.
- conversations between people who had something to say, who may not know about each other -- yes, that was nice
- but a community of passionate people working together to solve unmet business challenges in a collaborative, unselfish and unpoliticized way -- nirvana, as far as I could see.
If you asked me back then how the weightings would split out, I'd offer up something like 15/15/70. Fifteen percent of the value would come from better information distribution, 15 percent from conversations, and 70 percent from community formation.
Two things happened that are now changing my view of this.
First, I'm seeing more value than I anticipated in the first two categories: information sharing and ad-hoc discussions.
Second, we're seeing a lot of communities form that are all about -- well -- sharing information and casual discussions. They're not collaborating on anything per se, other than what I mentioned.
We've spent a lot of money on building an uber-intranet portal, called PowerLink. There is a *lot* of stuff there, all well-managed by a very proficient team.
But I'm starting to meet people who'll come to EMC|ONE first to look around for something, and -- if they don't find what they're looking for -- they'll go over to the corporate internet portal. Not the majority, mind you, but it's started.
The search engine is better. Tagging is a great way to find things. But, unlike the corporate portal, when you find something that's useful or interesting, you also get to meet the people who posted it, shared it, commented on it, etc.
And finding people who can help you is sometimes more valuable than finding a piece of information on this or that.
The value we're getting from "casual conversations" is amazing. Sure, there's a lot of fluff and idle chatter -- so what? But when someone checks in with a "did you know" or "have you thought about" or "how about we" type of discussion -- pure gold.
That doesn't mean we're not getting amazing value out of some of our communities. As an example, we've got a "competitive community" that has fundamentally transformed how we handle competitive analysis at EMC. And we now have a very vibrant VMware community -- as it's a topic that touches just about every discipline in the company.
And there are a few more promising ones we're working on.
I think I was mostly right in targeting "communities" at the top of the value chain in terms of business benefits -- that much is clear. But I think I have to be realistic -- we won't have as many good ones as quickly as I first thought, which has been more-than-outweighed from the benefits from the other types of interactions we're seeing.
I just have to adjust my lens a bit, that's all.
The Bottom Line
Justifying productivity software is hard.
Sure, we can build our justification around substitution effects, but -- in all honesty -- they're relatively minor, and I wouldn't be clearing my ROI hurdle as nicely as I am if that's all I went for.
But substitution effects are easy to understand by most people. Saving on X, Y and Z is a simple concept.
The real benefit -- by far -- are incremental benefits -- things that just weren't happening before, and are happening now. Harder for people to visualize, even harder to quantify. But a much bigger pot of business value, based on our experience.
Now that we've got several quarters under our belt, I perhaps underestimated the value around making content easier to find -- and to engage with the people who created it. I also probably underestimated the business value of thousands of public conversations -- all searchable, all join-able.
But I don't think I underestimated the value of communities. And I think that future voyagers in corporate social media proficiency would be well-served by putting them on top of the value hierarchy.
Just don't expect it to be easy, or to have too many of them ... at the start!