I get to meet a lot of customers. And I get to talk about a lot of topics.
I'd bet you'd never guess what the most popular topic is turning out to be. And I think the "why" behind the topic's popularity is worthy of some discussion.
Hint: it's not virtualization, or dedupe, or cloud, or anything like that ...
It's Social Media Proficiency
Yep, it's that whole Enterprise 2.0 thing that we're working on here at EMC. Turns out we're way ahead of the curve, so to speak. And people really want to talk about it.
We usually get into the discussion one of three ways:
- I describe the different things I do at EMC, and social media proficiency (blogs, wikis, forums, et. al.) is one of the things I'm currently leading, or
- We get into a discussion around emerging uses for enterprise content management, and supporting conversational collaboration by knowledge workers pops out, or
- I listen during the opening session where the customer team talks about what they're working on, and a clear picture emerges that they're really, really interested in this topic.
Doesn't matter how we get there, but when we do, we don't spend so much time on products and technologies -- we end up talking about an entirely new way that IT can create new value for the enterprise.
So, Why Is This So Darn Hot?
I think it's for a couple of reasons.
First, we now live in a world dominated by knowledge workers. For knowledge workers to be effective, they have to collaborate. And, although we're all familiar with document-oriented collaboration, conversational collaboration (especially the asynchronous kind) seems to be a much more effective interaction model.
Second, this is a low-investment big win for IT groups in creating value for the business. The technology isn't especially complex or expensive, but the process and organizational models are extremely difficult to get right.
Third, there's a note of defensiveness -- if IT doesn't get ahead of this, they're going to live in a world of hundreds of pirate sites, little corporate puddles each with their own little set of conversations and content. How many pirate blogs/wikis/forums do you have at your company?
Fourth, it's just plain cool stuff. And we all like to work on cool stuff, don't we?
So What Makes This So Hard?
It's not your average IT project in several regards.
A standard mindset of "define requirements, implement, roll out, move on" will most certainly lead to less-than-satisfying results. With this stuff, you're not building something, you're growing something. Funding, methodology, justification, staffing, mindset -- all have to be distinctly different.
Then there's the control angle. IT groups tend to exert a certain amount of control as part of their job function. Normally, this is a good thing. However, when building a social media platform, less control is better. Too much control, and people don't participate, and then you're looking at an expensive boat anchor.
Finally, social media proficiency is about people -- social engineering. A background in behavioral psychology is far more useful than advanced technical skills. Not exactly a traditional strong suit for many IT people.
This, perhaps, is the most important point. As you move to social media proficiency, not only are you re-wiring how people behave at work; you're also re-wiring how the organization functions. It's a significant and persistant change; and not everyone is entirely comfortable in the egalitarian world it creates.
So, Why Are IT Leaders So Interested In This Topic?
Look, we all got into this field because we thought technology was cool, and could change the way things are done for the better. And all that fun quickly got overwhelmed by budget discussions, technology debates, cranky users, delivering ever-improving service levels, and so on.
If you're looking around for a "big win" for the organization where IT can demonstrate unquestionable value, as well as some pretty progressive thought leadership, this one's a candidate. Hence the growing interest I've seen.
So, What Makes You An Expert?
I'm not. All I can claim is that we're well down this path, we're ecstatic about the results, and we learned a lot of non-obvious lessons in the process. That makes me experienced, not an expert.
And, frankly speaking, I haven't found any experts (as in people who've actually done it before) on this internal proficiency stuff yet. Another reason that makes it cool.
We've got over 4,000 active participants on our internal platform today (launched Sept '07). The unique business value it has created is unquestionable in most people's minds. It's changing our corporate culture and behaviors in a forceful and positive way. And we can't imagine a world without it now.
And, strategically, as we venture more outside the firewall to engage with people outside of EMC in new ways, we've got the skills and knowledge to do so in a very compelling way.
Your mileage may vary.
Framing The Problem
Turns out that one of the hardest things to do is to frame the problem the right way. There's no magic answer to this -- everyone's situation is different -- but, since the topic is wild and wooly, it's nice to be able to come back to the problem statement when things get crazy.
Since we're essentially technologists, we frame the problem in technology terms: how do we build a social computer at EMC? And, once we do so behind the firewall, how do we add computational participants outside the company?
We're now a big company with a lot of people around the globe. We've grown through acqusitions, and -- as a result -- not everone really knows a whole lot about what the rest of the company is up to. Most of us can charitably be described as knowledge workers. We all crave meaty, beefy conversations with other smart people.
Early on, we came up with the term "conversational collaboration" to describe what we're after. Other forms of collaboration are very useful as well (e.g. document-oriented, project teams, email, real-time, etc.) and have their place. We wanted to complement those interaction models with something that ended up being called "The Big Conversation".
The most common question is "what technology are you using?".
I answer the question in two parts: we're using a third-party commercially available social software application, and working to integrate it with EMC's "content backbone", e.g. Documentum. We want existing content to be exposed as part of a conversation, and -- of course -- anything useful that's created to be captured and managed by Documentum.
From a content-centric viewpoint, social software is nothing more than another content interaction model, e.g. "Discuss This Document" as a really simple example.
I then go on to say that finding the "best technology" is only 10% of your concerns. The other 90% should be methodology. Find something that works for you, and get started on the real fun stuff -- changing how people think.
I remember back to the early days of integrated ERP packages, and how there were all sorts of horror stories of companies that had bought the stuff, but didn't really understand that they had to change how they worked. I'm absolutely sure we'll be seeing a replay of this movie as people lurch into enterprise 2.0 proficiency.
The second most common question is "how did you justify this?".
I think they're looking for a magic business case showing ROI and so on. Well, we didn't do that. It was just an article of faith that we had to do it, so we rounded up some resources and some talented people, and just got started. Now, no one is asking anymore ... ;-)
The third most common question is "how do you avoid bad stuff happening?" [insert long list of potentially ugly scenarios that could happen]. Due to the way we set expectations and set a few simple boundaries, none of that has happened so far. But, we had to have a willingness to have something potentially bad happen, and be able to react quickly if it did.
The fourth question (actually, it's a reaction) is that "well, we're looking at a Facebook-style application, or we have the ability to create wikis" or something similar. Nothing wrong with that. But I will probably annoy you by implying you've likely missed the bigger picture of what's going on.
I can be very good at annoying people in that way.
And, finally, the fifth question I get is "how do we get started?".
That's really a people problem, isn't it? Find someone you trust, give them some resources, let them figure it out, and be willing to be continually uncomfortable about what they're doing.
That's my story, basically.
Ready To Take A Deeper Dive?
One thing I can do is point you to my other blog (a non-corporate, personal blog) on the journey we're on, and what I've learned.
If you're interested, I can point you at a few more cool links (there's a lot of discussion on this topic out there), or maybe try googling things like "social software" and "social productivity software". Warning: trying to google something the "enterprise 2.0" or "social media" will lead you into the uncharted wilds.
I don't know if you know the story of Jeremiah Owyang, who started out doing this stuff at HDS, and -- in the process of doing so -- found his real calling, and is now one of the true "recognized authorities" on external social media proficiency, now working at Forrestor. In some ways, he was an inspiration to many of us.
So, is this topic interesting to you too?