I may have mentioned already that one of my more fun projects is figuring out how to get EMC more proficient at this whole social media thing.
And it's made me realize that value-creating IT environments will be evolving here very, very quickly around this new paradigm.
When I'm in front of customers, sometimes I make the mistake of sharing that I'm working on this. And, more than once, we've found ourselves spending all of our time on this topic, rather than the technology stuff I was supposed to be talking about.
Building The Social Computer
Simply put, every company runs on human capital. Any technology or environment that makes people work together more effectively and more efficiently is a good thing.
But we're social creatures.
And I've fallen into the habit of using the concept of "building the social computer" to create an analogy that technical types can relate to when trying to understand the problem.
In SOA, we talk in terms of publishing services, so that others can discover what's available, and put it to use. We talk in terms of protocols for communication, and roles that different entities play.
All of these concepts have strong analogues in the social media world. We share who we are, and what we're interested in. We find each other, and converse about interesting topics. We share our knowledge and experience with others. We collaborate in new and innovative ways.
And what I'm realizing is that -- as a result -- our concepts of collaboration -- and even work -- are starting to change.
And this has clear impacts for IT, and for the companies that pay for it.
Different collaboration models are emerging, and each one has entirely different value propositions.
You may know this as workflow, or business process management, or something else. There's a business process that requires multiple functional entities to work together, usually sequentially, to get something done.
Order-to-cash is an example of transactional collaboration. The roles are well defined, the rules are relatively static.
In this model, humans are largely automatons; repetitively processing the output of one function for input by another function. Not much spontaneous creativitiy interaction here, nor is it usually encouraged!
Strictly speaking, this is collaboration, but it's not that interesting going forward. However, there's a humungous amount of IT spend around automating these workflows (think ERP, CRM and similar) and analyzing the results (think business intelligence and analytics).
One of the ways people can work together is around a document. People contribute, edit, revise, approve and distribute documents, reports, and so on.
Sure, people are interacting, but it's in the context of a specific document or task at hand. As an example, it's pretty hard to carry on a useful conversation using the "track changes" feature of Microsoft Word.
EMC's Documentum implements a document-centric collaboration model around eRoom. Microsoft's SharePoint offering does something similar.
As a social computer, this is better, but we're still communicating by pushing documents at each other, with some workflow around it. Imagine if you went to a party, and the only way you could converse is by pushing a powerpoint at someone, who would read it, comment, and push it back at you.
That's not the way people work together in the real world, is it?
I don't know about you, but in my working world, I'll sometimes start talking with someone about something that's interesting. We'll share perspectives and information, and -- if we're both suitably motivated -- maybe we'll start working on something together, and bringing other people into the mix.
We collaborate because we're both interested in a topic, and neither party has 100% of the picture. Maybe that results in a document, or a white paper, or a memo, or some other deliverable or course of action, but none of that would have happened unless we started to chat with each other.
Now, in small workgroups, this happens quite easily, but how do you start this spontaneous, creative behavior in larger, multi-divisional organizations? Across thousands of employees, multiple time zones and dozens of physical locations?
Doing it in the margins between meetings isn't efficient or productive, and having formal "brainstorming" sessions doesn't always feel quite right. And if someone schedules another conference call, I'll cringe.
It's not predefined interaction. It's not a structured workflow. It's something entirely different than the other two collaboration models.
It's people talking with each other about what's interesting -- hopefully in a work context.
I'd argue -- based on personal experience -- if we're becoming a society of knowledge workers, this type of ad-hoc conversing on interesting topics is of extremely high value, especially going forward.
Traditional Knowledge Management Misses The Point
I've been exposed to various KM initiatives over the years. Maybe the thinking has progressed, but -- at one time -- it seemed that people were intoxicated with the idea of codifying all institutional knowledge in some sort of central, searchable repository.
I'm not being pessimistic, but I haven't heard of too many of these initiatives ever panning out.
I think this approach missed the point -- the knowledge was in people's interactions, and was hard to separate and codify.
I'm guessing that KM thinking has progressed -- or will progress -- towards notions of social computing: getting people to expose what they know, getting them to interact together on hot topics, and hopefully write a few things down collectively that can be KM'ed (or document managed) using traditional approaches.
Our Behind-The-Firewall Experiment
If you've glanced at the other blog, you'll read the story of how we've built a platform to encourage social media behavior at EMC.
The results take a while to develop, but they're fascinating. We're getting a quality of interaction and collaboration we couldn't get with other approaches (and we have LOTS of other platforms).
We're getting really valuable IP and best practices from a wide range of people who had never met before, didn't know about each other, but find that they have common interests and something to contribute to the discussion.
We didn't tell people to do this, they're just doing it. On their own.
There's no way we could have gotten this from assigning projects to teams. Or editing documents as a group. Or spamming each other with email. It's showing signs of being an entirely new way of having people work together.
For me, watching this happen changed my perspective of what collaboration is all about. And, for the people who've waded in, they say it's "fun". Work being fun? What's wrong with this picture?
The New Value Chain
I think it's safe to say that a new "C-level" issue is productivity, because productivity is the engine of all economic growth. Ditto for innovation, collaboration, etc.
If you can get people working together in entirely new ways -- whether they're employees, partners, customers, or whoever's in your value-chain -- to produce new insights, new ideas, new approaches -- and work together to bring these ideas to fruition -- well, that's pretty heady stuff.
And if you can do it at very low cost, and almost no management overhead, so much the better, right?
That's why social media as a business tool continues to fascinate me much more than it should. And without getting all Web 2.0-ish, it's pretty clear that this is a potential game changer for many organizations.
It's the new collaboration model, building on the other two that came before it.
The Race Is On
I think we're entering a period where there's two interesting races going on.
The first race are the technology vendors and consultants -- they're racing to deliver enterprise-class social media platforms that work the way people do, and not the way IT wants them to work. Right now, I'd offer that there's no clear leader, but most likely there will be soon.
I think that the document-oriented collaboration vendors are a good starting point, but they're going to have to re-think their user interaction model substantially using social media concepts: blogs, wiki, forums, chat, etc.
And the second race will be companies who figure out how to use these new platforms to deliver far more innovation, productivity and creativity than using traditional collaboration approaches. I think that those that crack the code will enjoy an unfair advantage over those that don't.
In some ways, it feels like 1995 when the corporate world was trying to figure out this internet thing.
Who said IT was boring?