The E20 Summit in Frankfurt last week provided a great opportunity to take the temperature of the current state of practice in enterprise social computing across Europe, and to get a sense of the issues companies are facing in taking it forward. There is a good summary of links and coverage here from 2.0 Adoption Council member Jim Worth, and some excellent notes from Emanuele Quintarelli and Samuel Driessen.
I had the job of closing the event with a wrap-up keynote, the slides for which are embedded below, and my theme was how we move beyond a focus on tool adoption to realise mainstream business value.
Where are we now?
We have come a long way, and the current level of usage of enterprise social tools in Europe (especially the UK and German-speaking areas) is higher than many people realise. There is great awareness of the value proposition for social business tools; and we are seeing a wide range of use cases, as we outlined in our E2.0 research project for the European Commission. So far, our focus has been largely on driving the adoption of tools as a necessary step towards what we hope will be positive business improvement. During the summit, several people asked whether these tools would act as a Trojan horse for organisational change, bringing about more flexible, less hierarchical structures and ways of working. Perhaps. Or maybe the concept of Trojan mice fits better – big change achieved through lots of small, focused improvements.
But if we widen our focus for a second and look at the bigger picture, I think we will see that E2.0 tool adoption is still in its early phase, pretty patchy and too focused on tool use for its own sake, rather than business improvement. This raises the question: what is our goal?
- Is it to drive the adoption of more and better E2.0 tools?
- Is it to maximise short-term business performance?
- Is it to drive medium- to long-term business improvement?
For me, the answer is to aim for (3), paid for by (2) and with (1) as a necessary, but not sufficient, prerequisite.
In the business cases that we develop, we are usually looking for measurable improvements in:
- Operating costs, transaction costs and customer acquisition costs
- Networked productivity and team performance
- Business agility and responsiveness to changing conditions
- More effective management and leadership
- Greater customer centricity
There are many business functions in which these benefits can be found, but in very broad terms there are three main areas of focus that I think social technologists can focus on to improve business performance:
Too much management thinking in recent times has been focused on influencing behaviour by addressing extrinsic motivation – usually a variant of the basic carrot and stick idea – and not enough on tapping into peoples’ intrinsic motivation to do the right thing and to make sense of the world around them. We have learned so much in the past five years about motivation, incentives and behaviour in social systems, and yet current business practice has not yet made good use of these lessons. Social business systems are well placed to strike a balance between human and corporate needs, getting more out of people with lower management overheads, and by increasing the connectivity between people in the workplace, they can make better use of a company’s existing human potential.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that social systems have an ability to evolve solutions to problems that are more robust and efficient than expert analysis alone, from bees outperforming computers in route-finding to Google’s page rank algorithm. And, by designing systems that work with the grain of human behaviour, with all its ambiguity and messiness, companies are far more likely to benefit from greater voluntary participation. Without that, making any system work is a long hard slog of training, coercion and communication initiatives.
In business and in public services, there seems to be a realisation that we have gone too far in trying to manage by repeatable process, and this has led to people taking less personal responsibility for outcomes. Also, given that process is often created but rarely revoked, we have seen a gradual accretion of check-box methods that are making business progressively slower, more expensive, and less customer centric. There are, of course, areas of business where repeatable process is vital, but everywhere else, it is better to hire smart people and encourage them to use their judgment to get the job done. Social tools and social business systems create the connective tissue within an organisation that can enable this to happen, safe in the knowledge that a highly connected environment provides checks and balances to prevent and/or minimise mistakes.
Social technology uses what we know about human behaviour and influence to improve participation and aim for the kind of network effects we have seen in the consumer Web 2.0 world. It understands that the modern world is about aggregation, feeds and flows rather than managing knowledge objects, and that allowing work to take place in relatively open, collaborative environments is actually more reliable and robust than closed models. Overall, this gives us an approach to designing business solutions, processes and organisational structures that are technologically smart yet simple, drawing on recent thinking in social sciences to create more effective outcomes.
There are many areas of existing enterprise IT that could be delivered at a significantly lower price point, whilst at the same time increasing the level of socialisation within the firm. Software categories such as CRM, ERP, eDMS, BPM, etc are dominated by expensive, yet ultimately quite inefficient solutions. Social business suggests a new way – lightweight process plus augmented human intelligence and ‘the power of we’ applied to solving problems and getting things done. The over-engineering of technology solutions in a centralised, one size fits all configuration is one reason why IT investment failed to deliver on its promise of productivity gains in the 1990’s.
Rather than trying to hold on to one-size-fits-all thinking, enterprise IT functions are gradually starting to adopt ideas about platforms and technology stacks that are already well-established in the more rapidly-evolving consumer IT sector. The long-term direction of travel here is that IT will provision services that the business can develop against, much like the model of an operating system and applications, instead of owning the whole stack as they tend to do now. As social tools tend to be cheaper and more lightweight than older legacy systems, this arrangement means that the business can take greater ownership of their infrastructure without diverging from corporate IT standards. Some of these solutions might reside in the cloud, but I think much will continue to be on-premises for the time being.
If we are to have a real impact on business practice in these three areas and move towards the design of mainstream social systems in the enterprise, then I think we need to extend our focus from being about E2.0 tools and adoption to include new areas of practice, such as:
Social IT strategy
We need to work with both IT and Lines of Business (LOBs) to create a social layer between the backend enterprise systems that IT guard so carefully and the new world of social apps that the business want to be able to use. We think of this in terms of pace layering (see the slides above for a diagram) and see it as an important step towards solving many of the issues that currently concern both IT (standards, security, data protection) and the business (agility, innovation, desire for simplicity).
Once we have provisioned a social platform layer with APIs that can support social tools higher up the stack, then it becomes economically viable to develop situated software inside the enterprise to meet very specific needs based on clear business use cases. Ultimately, we believe this will lead to internal enterprise ‘app stores’ where IT manage and provision the underlying operating system and people in the business can choose from a range of small, cheap, simple applications that sit on top and do one thing very well.
At the summit, the German term nutzungsoffenheit was used to denote the characteristics of open or flexible infrastructure that can support emergent behaviour (see Kai Riemer’s excellent overview of the term and its meaning). I find this a useful term, and I think in the future we may see the famous advertising claim revised to become Vorsprung durch Nutzungsoffenheit!
Open data and analytics
Sharing real-time data in the open is a powerful feedback system with huge potential to drive behaviour change. In the old world of asychronous reporting and targets, people would do their work, file reports and then based on how they performed against crude targets, they would be subject to enforcement measures to improve performance in the next time cycle. This is a very blunt instrument for behaviour change, suffering both time lag issues and also the ‘gaming’ inherent in any system where measures become targets. Instead, drawing on observations about biofeedback, organisations are starting to learn that by exposing people to relevant signals, measures and data about how their performance fits into the bigger picture, people tend to self-regulate their behaviour to improve outcomes. Most companies have huge amounts of data that could be orchestrated to provide people with a real-time view of the business. Until now, social analytics has been used only for making sense of signals from customers on the social web, but I think this idea will expand to encompass other sources of data about products, services and performance, and has the potential to accelerate business improvement generally. Whereas social media monitoring and Social CRM currently sits at the edge of the organisation providing insight to marketers, we will see this customer and market intelligence increasingly being socialised within the firm to drive service improvement.
Social experience design
We already know that user experience is the key to success for any social software product, project or programme. It does not matter how feature-rich a product might be – if people don’t enjoy using it, then they tend to ignore it. There is a lot of value in the user experience field that can be used to improve technology inside the enterprise, and this is a core practice area for Headshift. But if we change focus from human -> computer interaction to human(s) -> human(s) interaction via computers, then a whole new field of experience design comes into view.
Given what we know about the spread of influence and behaviours in networks, how can we design interventions that change the dynamics in social systems, perhaps to increase flow or stimulate activity? Ideas from behavioural economics and concepts such as ‘nudge‘ give us some starting points here, but a lot of it is common sense social dynamics (a colleague likens it to acupuncture) applied to networks.
So, whilst we continue to do user engagement work to help drive adoption of social tools and platforms inside the enterprise, we are really excited about our growing toolkit of social experience design techniques that we think can add a great deal of value to any enterprise social technology project by stimulating energy and activity within the networks that make up the firm.
At the summit last year, I spoke about social tools providing new opportunities for traditional leadership, and freeing business leaders from the hierarchical reporting lines that prevent them from getting a real picture of what is happening below them. It is much the same point that Frank from Synaxon made recently about managers moving from being information processing bottlenecks to real-time leaders and managers by exception. Helping business leaders find their voice and their presence in corporate social networks is a useful thing to do for the business, and especially for building a culture of collaboration, but it can also help those practitioners trying to accelerate social business thinking by making it easier to get high level sponsorship and understanding.
So, going back to the Trojan horse / Trojan mice question that was raised throughout the summit, can social technology and E2.0 tools lead to meaningful change in the structure, culture and practice of business in today’s enterprises? I think the answer is clearly a resounding YES, but it would be a mistake to think this can only be achieved by reforming the existing siloed structures that have been dominant for so long. Instead, I think a smarter approach is to patiently weave new networks and connections aligned to the way work gets done right now (which rarely corresponds to the formal reporting lines) and hope that over time, energy and activity gradually migrate towards them, and perhaps make these networks the new centre of gravity in the enterprise.
It is great so see the growing maturity of the social business and E2.0 fields, and to come across more examples where this is working well across different sectors, but I think we now need to move beyond a focus on tool adoption and broaden our horizon to include the kind of strategic offerings outlined above if we are to see the change we believe is possible. If you work in a firm that has implemented an E2.0 platform of some kind and would like to try some advanced engagement ideas along the lines outlined above, then please contact us.