Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Making boundaries deliberately porous with social tools

by Robin Hamman

Many businesses have been, for some time, dabbling in the use of socialmedia, usually in marketing their products and services or monitoring andresponding to mentions of their brands. As we’ve seen time and timeagain in client engagements, these activities usually take place insilos and are disconnected from other, often parallel, businesscritical processes such as customer support, innovation, and productand service delivery.

There is, however, another side to the use of social tools – so called”Enterprise 2.0″ – a range of internal use cases such as documentsharing, knowledge management, collaboration and new forms ofengagement with stakeholders and partners.

Jeff Jarvis, a well known media consultant, author of “What WouldGoogle Do?” and Director of Interactive Journalism at CUNY usuallyfocuses on the social media that audiences and consumers can engagewith directly. He’s a strong advocate of making editorial processesmore transparent, and using open social tools and platforms to do it.

Until now, I’ve never seen Jeff discuss, much less enthuse about, alinked up approach to social media that brings audience and consumerfacing propositions together with secure, internal processes andtechnologies. However, he was recently invited to learn more about how Howard Stern’s programme does exactly this, and more, using digital tools provided by IBM, one of a growing number of Headshift partners: 

“What impressed me is that IBM integrated the functions of thecollaborative, social internet — email, Twitter, wikis, LinkedIn,Facebook, Facebook Connect, directories, blogs, calendars, Skype,bookmarks, tagging — in a way that I wish they would all interroperate:click on a name and get everything about them (contact, place, tags,bookmarks); pull together people in calls or calendars just by draggingthem; see how people are sharing your documents; see how people areconnected….

Only thing is, IBM had to essentially recreate the internet and allthese functions to do that, both so they could integrate it all and sothat it could operate behind corporate firewalls. We internet snobsmake fun of that, but I understand why they do that. But as we talkabout how our internet should operate — how open standards foridentity, for example, should work — the irony is that we could look atthe interlocked IBM platforms to see the promise of it. It’s closed,for a reason, but it shows what an open structure would look like if itoperated on truly open standards. I wonder whether there’s anopportunity for IBM to offer these functions at a retail level.

Our view, based on the concepts of Social Business Design (pdf),is that linking up social media activities outside the business, whilstat the same time recallibrating business practices, processes andtechnologies inside the business is where things get really interesting. It’s something my colleague Lee Bryant recently spoke about in a conference presentation:

“The focus of my talk was the idea that hanging shiny social mediabaubles on the cold, hard external walls of a corporate organisationruns the risk of creating a false brand promise unless this work hasstrong internal underpinnings in the form of social business structuresthat can do something about the noise, insights and feedback thatoutbound communications generate.

The key to achieving this is building bridges between the inside andoutside worlds, and recognising that we are all (corporate, as well ashuman beings) products of our networks, ecosystems and connections.”

Sometimes, what goes on behind the firewall needs to – for legal,competitive, regulatory or confidentiality reasons – stay there, but itoften does make sense to bring the outside in, and expose someprocesses, people and ideas where there is a business case to doing so.Social media – we usually call it social tools here at Headshift – can be the bridge thatenables this to happen.

The approach reminds me, to some extent, of the architecturalideas championed by American Prairie School, of which Frank LloydWright’s work provides the most well known examples. In many of theproperties he designed, Wright used locally quarried stone to buildwalls and other structures that are visible both inside and outside thehome, seamlessly connecting the two and blending into the natural surroundings. Doors can often be opened tobalconies to extend living space, which up until this time hadusually been internal, outside. At Fallingwater, probably his mostfamous work, he built a home on top of a waterfall, filling thebuilding with the sight and sounds of water crashing down beneath – and through – thestructure.

The work we’re doing to transform businesses into more socially calibrated entities often blurs the boundaries, as in Wright’s work, between the outside and inside. Audiences can become co-creators. Consumers and brands can work together to devise innovations in product and service offerings. One time competitors can become partners. To achieve this, however, requires both the introduction of new social business strategies and the use of social technologies which support them. These strategies and tools are rapidly maturing – if Jarvis thinks the things he saw Howard Stern’s production company doing were interesting, wait until he sees the next wave of what we’re able to achieve as we continue to make the boundaries between inside and outside deliberately, and meaningfully, porous. This is where social media is getting truly interesting, and genuinely impactful.

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