Summary : social networks won’t die but deeply mutate. Since they only cover a small part of user’s needs, they show their limits in the same way email did. But rather than dying, their principles will integrate into tools with a larger scope of business use and will, at last, deserve the name of business tool in tomorrow’s work environment. Last, by not imitating social to enterprise networks anymore, businesses will at last get tangible benefits from their efforts.
A couple of month ago two things happened in the same week that brought my attention on a deep trend in the market of enterprise social networks.
The first was a conversation with one of my contacts, following the announcement of a new player on the market. His spontaneous reaction was ” ah ? A new social network ?”. My answer : “no…that’s…”. In fact it was all about applying social principles to the flow of work. But myths die hard and when we say “social” nearly everybody understands “network”. I’ll once again refer to the brillant distinction made by the Real Story Group but networking and collaboration are to complementary sides of the social sphere but, and we can see it at work everyday, thinking that the one will replace the other leads to many disappointments and is the cause of the failure of many projects. Not because of tools but because they were irrelevant to the real objective.
The second was a post (in french) by Marc Devilard. Even if I agree that some could have find the form irritating (but sometimes you need to be provocative to get people’s attention) but the content was very relevant. What was he saying ?
In the same way, social networks try to compare with email to look more important. But their profitability is negative. It relies on an intrinsic contradiction that is asking people to be unproductive at work.
What leads him to a provocative conclusion : the end of enterprise social networks.
And I agreed. Why ? Social, if limited to networking, is not a factor of immediate productivity, it creates the context for a future improved productivity. Useful but not meeting the need of improving performance but today and in the future. A needs that’s both about immediacy and sustainability in performance.
So social networks will die. At least in some ways. Their current form as tools that only serve for activities that happen outside the flow of work, will disappear and they’ll integrate in tools that cover a broader scope of end-users needs. As a matter of fact users face a real productivity issue today : while all their work is about processing information, they are forced to switch tool depending on the form and source of information. Knowing that the people one need to share information with can only be reached in tools that are not the ones in which the information is, it’s easy to see how tedious and unproductive things are.
What is proven right by experience. I had the opportunity to work on many large scale projects and, each time, the story was the same. It started with a social network project but this project is only the vanguard of a digital workplace project that comes immediately after.
By the way a major industry vendor recently told be that he prefered the term “social business platform”. Why ? Because it involves many internal and external tools and media to use jointly, some being social by nature and others needed to be brought into the social context.
So, like email, social networks in their current form will disappear but their principles will stay, integrated into platforms with a broader purpose that bring together all sources of information, their senders and receivers and make many forms of work and collaboration possible.
Why ? Because, in their current form focused on networking and out-of-the-flow conversation, social networks showed all their potential but also their limits and are seen today as the embodiment of an idealised and biased vision of work even if it’s a part of what future will be.
Today, a workplace project needs to integrate a social network but also many other components that are not designed for. What makes it complex. Tomorrow, these tools will embed social functionalities, will integrate email, business apps alerts, social conversations, communities and will offer connectors for the rest. Same for business applications that will socialize without the need of a specific layer.
Social networks will become what they aimed to be from the start but could not become because designed to exist against the rest of the information system.
The future of the digital workplace is social and social networks will only be a part of it. The question is rather to know who’ll win the front-end battle : the social platform drawing up business activities or socialized business apps drawing up communities as side activities. Future will tell.
But one thing is sure : we’d better stop predicting the end of anything and try to understand how things will mutate.