You know, you go through life thinking you've got some stuff figured out, and -- one day -- you get "schooled" in a very shocking (and beneficial) manner.
I had just such an experience today.
I have seen the future of corporate social media in a way that I did not believe was possible.
I saw it working in ways that I thought were many years away.
And I'm going to have to re-evaluate a few things as a result.
The Back Story
A few months ago, I was presenting on multiple topics to GE's exec IT management, and we got into the whole topic of social productivity. The IT team was very interested in the topic.
After the session, Mark Mastrianni came up and shared what his team had been doing with their internal platform, SupportCentral. He invited me to come down and see what his team had been up to.
Calendars didn't line up for quite a while, but -- eventually -- I journeyed down to see them, not expecting all that much. I've seen maybe 30 or so internal efforts at this stuff -- all at the early stages. Usually, they've done one thing or another that I find interesting, and I share some of our experiences in return.
Not this time.
To say that I was blown away would be a bit of an understatement.
A Bit About GE's SupportCentral
Don't be put off by the name. This is an extremely advanced social productivity platform.
They got started working on this in 1999. Think for a moment about how far you can get by working on a problem for eight years.
If I heard correctly, they've got maybe 40 people working on this, and -- with contractors -- over 100 folks supporting this initiative.
Their user adoption stats are incredible. As one small example, their internal platform gets more employee traffic than Google and Yahoo combined.
They drop new code every two weeks. They're deploying -- and using -- SM features that many of us could only dream about. I'm not sure -- even now -- that I fully understand all of it. It was apparent that they'd been incrementally innovating for many years, and incorporating all sorts of non-obvious feedback that only comes from very proficient users.
Most importantly, it became apparent that they had successfully rewired GE's corporate DNA to function very effectively as a social computer.
A Few Cool Features
Yes, they do the blogging, wiki, discussion thing -- that's just for starters.
We debate on ideal SM models occasionally -- people-centric, community-centric, discussion-centric, document-centric, process-centric, etc.
They had support for every one of these models -- seamlessly integrated. People can engage in any mode that makes sense to them. As one example, personal workspace content can be part of a community, discussion, process, etc.
Presence? Just part of the environment, thanks. They described themselves in a "post-email world". Nice.
Mashups? Deployed for quite a while, thanks -- all corporate repositories could easily be accessed. They'd lost count of the umpteen thousand mashups people had created.
What really blew me away was their integration of process tools. Business processes can be defined by anyone, refined by anyone, instantiated by anyone, measured by anyone. As a result, they could count 50,000 different business processes that were captured on the platform in some form or another.
That one made me think for a moment ...
They also had done a nice job of putting a somewhat formalized workflow layer over an essentially social environment. Some things are more important than others in a business setting.
I Had To Catch My Breath
When you get a glimpse of the future at work, it makes you take a moment to reflect on a few things.
First, the functionality they'd deployed was many years ahead of anything I've seen or heard about in the marketplace. More importantly, it was developed and deployed in response to documented business needs from proficient users who'd made this platform the core of their business life.
Second, they invested early and continuously. Sure, they had to fight for budget and recognition just like any other business investment, but their sustained commitment had obviously paid off in a tangible, sustainable business advantage.
Third, the rest of us are now at a substantial competitive disadvantage if we decide to compete with GE. Thankfully, they're a customer and not a competitor. Because they were so early, they probably had to invest more than those of us slowpokes who are relative noobs to all of this.
Fourth, it gave me tangible proof that social media / social productivity / social computing can work at mega-scale -- and I had a greater case that these techniques would re-make how business gets done in the future.
Or, in the present, if you happen work for GE.
Fifth, if you're running one of those cool "web 2.0 in the enterprise" events, I'd make a special point of inviting Mark (or one of his team) to present. Everyone else talks big about the future -- but it appears the future has existed for quite a while at GE.
And if you're contemplating being a vendor or consultant in this space, I'd make a big effort to see what they've done, how they did it -- and, most importantly -- why they did it.
What Got Tossed Out The Door?
A whole bunch of "conventional wisdom" that I really didn't agree with anyway.
First, it clearly isn't a generational thing. If you're of this view, I now have documented proof that you're dead wrong. Score one for my generation's ability to adopt new ways of working.
Second, traditional corporate cultures can't change. If there was any corporate culture more button-downed than GE's, I'd like to see it. And it now appears to be completely transformed around social computing.
Third, the assumption that this has to be a top-down mandate. Sure, Mark and his team are pretty senior, but they had to do this the hard way -- by convincing hundreds of thousands of people that this was a better way to work.
Fourth, that business justification is impossible. GE's culture is all about hard savings, and documented value. They routinely discredit soft justification. And they have been convinced in a big way -- and for quite a while.
Fifth, that social media is incompatible with business concerns. Their environment is pretty much business-oriented. There's not a lot of "social" going on the platform -- and it works very well, thank you.
Bravo to Mark and his team.
I've been humbled -- in a great and wonderful way. And I've got a few things to think about.