Surviving in the social software jungle

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In brief: the advent of social software change shifted the balance of power between IT and business people by reinforcing the autonomy of the second. But as social networks projects become digital workplaces ones over time, the need for internal coherence implies a strong comeback of IT departments to guarantee social urbanization of the information system without which everything will be a little bit social but nothing will be globally social.

A previous post on email and enterprise social networks made me have many interesting discussions (most of all on twitter what proves that blogs aren’t dead but that the conversation has moved). Many reactions interested me a lot, most of all one from someone telling be that beyond the fact it’s not easy for many people to get what tool convergence means, the complexity of the enterprise social software industry was a real concern for most businesses.

That’s what this post is about.

What was new with social software, helped by the cloud and the SaaS model, is that the buyer is not solely the IT department anymore but more and more business people. For the best and the worse.

For the best because the buying decision is now closer to users needs. Even if there are still many approximations, the appropriateness of software to end users needs and their adoption capacity has improved. There’s one obvious to that : historically poorly informed about users needs, IT departments used to check the existence of a list of functionalities and make choice for end users. What often lead to buying software that matches the needs from a functional point of view but were unusable in the context of work.

I’ll never repeat this enough : what matters is not that a given tool had blogs, wikis, file sharing etc. but how users can use these functionalities in isolation or jointly, in the flow of their work, without having to perform useless actions. So rather than specifications listing 2000 functionalities, put a panel in front of a screen and ask them if they feel they can do their work in such a work environment without any risk of headache.

Information Systems are Social Shambles.

But also for the worse. By multiplying local choices without any global coherence (should it be because IT decided to lose control or because business people have made a coup d’etat), the enterprise social landscape has become shambles, beginning to restrain initiatives.

I won’t even elaborate of the fact business people struggle at making a choice on the enterprise social software market. As a matter of fact there is a plethora of solutions that, according to vendors, are all doing perfectly anything people need. What is most of time wrong but when businesses realize it it’s often too late. All are good t something depending on what was the priority that prevailed when they were designed but very few are good at everything. And finding oneself with a conversation and networking tool while the need was more about social collaboration is a pity. But it happens more often than you may think.

I won’t focus either on the choice of multiple social networks within a single company that create more silos than they’re supposed to break. Businesses are more and more aware of that but there’s a time when someone has to decide to stop the muddle. But as businesses also realize that social networks are only a part of a wider system, things get complicated.

A social network is not a CMS and reciprocally. Bottom line : many organizations realize they need to bring the network and the intranet together in the same screen, what leads to wonder about integration capabilities between the two solutions. What ends in having the same reflection for the portal.

A social network is not a document management system either. But on the other hand, social interactions often happen around documents. So the reflection comes to ECM.

Then come business applications. Should we use a socialized business application or bring business activities into the social and collaborative environment ?

Let’s not forget HR. Using social data and mechanisms helps to improve talent management. Sourcing, development, measurement etc.. What makes another social brick to add if you want to make the most of your system. And what’s about your LMS that is, of course, more or less social…but you want a signe conversational platform.

Things are becoming messy, aren’t they ? How will users find their way in such an environment ? With a global search of course ! What leads to think about your search engine. Or with a good recommendation engine that won’t be restricted to one social silo. So the engine should be able to extend its scope of operation…or a new one will have to be implemented.

But not everything is asynchronous. How to integrate with instant messaging, video conferencing and even unified communication solutions to be able to reach anyone the way I need in just one click.

Of course, multiple poor directories and profiles are not acceptable anymore so the profile of the social network should become the single place where all data about people are displayed. What means connecting it to enterprise directories and HR systems.

Of course, in 90% cases, from ECM to business apps, you’ve been told that the solution you bought was collaborative and social. Truth is each of them partly is but the overall user experience is not social at all.

Very few took such concerns into account when most projects started. And even when they did, “specialists” used to say that documents and business apps were died, that intranets were about to and that everything was about to become conversations. Today, the waking-up is more than painful.

First because the first initial choices may have been wrong because of the belief that everything social was a social network and that all products were equal. Then because to provide end users with a coherent global experience (and make them use the social network) businesses realize they don’t have all the parts of the puzzle at hand or have incoherent ones. Everything was social something but the final result is not globally social. Last because when choices have been made at a local level, working on common tools with people across the organizations is even a worse nightmare that it used to be. What turns a thorny problem into an insoluble equation.

IT to guarantee the internal coherence.

These are the facts.

The reason for such a situation is obvious. If a business manager is often the best one to (sometimes with a little help) choose his social solution, he has not enough hindsight  to think global and the competences to make coherent decisions in this context. This is not criticism at all. Who’ll ask the CIO to hire a marketing intern ? No one. So don’t ask the marketing director to urbanize the information system.

But now it’s imperative to get out this mess. It may be painless if your company is only in the thinking phase but much more complicated is the harm have already been done.

And your savior will be your IT department.

Because a work environment that’s worthy of the name needs two things : stick to end users work routines et be internally coherent. Only your IT can help with the second point.

The good news is that things have changed these last years. CIOs have understood the importance of a usage driven approach versus a merely functional one and I see more and more IT departments work with business people to make common choices instead of chosing a solution on their own because “it has all the functional requirements” and say “that’s it or nothing, now cope on your own”.

The  Business/IT couple matters

All these points reminds us that IT and business people will more and more work together. The one will guarantee that the chosen solutions match both end users and business needs, the other the internal coherence of the IT portfolio. One is responsible for fast and productive adoption, the other to make the system perennial as maturity increases and needs become more complex.

It seems that after a long moment of hesitation this kind of cooperation is becoming more and more common. I’ve recently seen two projects where the lead was taken by business people and where IT played a facilitator role and tried to anticipate the next steps, those that business people could not imagine alone, helping them to make decisions that will preserve the future. In these cases, IT people behaved as guides, not as prescribers. And business people discovered the submerged part of the iceberg as well as possibilities they would have never thought of, made possible by coherent choices. In the same way, the IT would never has started such programs without the request of business.

In the end the social network projet becomes a digital workplace one. A classic story.

There are still cases of IT not caring about the social urbanization of the information system. But they’re rarer every day.