I receive e-mail frequently from PR people promoting the latest IT tools and new Web applications. These days a common thread I see is the addition of social features to software to make it easier for users to share information and collaborate with others. Personally, I believe it’s largely beneficial to 1) find ways to take advantage of the social graphs that users have been building in recent years, and 2) add the techniques and channels of the social world to make traditional software more effective and usable in general.
However, in reality these relatively minor tweaks are just the proverbial paving of the cowpath through the addition of limited social features such as collaborative sharing, persistent chat, and perhaps some deeper integration with activity streams. Unfortunately, these actions easily fail the imagination test, which is essentially this:
If you could completely rethink your work in a social business world, what would it look like? How would it be better?
To me, this is the fundamental question that organizations must be asking themselves today. Yet, I also think they should do this while going about the aforementioned incremental improvements such as adding basic social layers to their IT landscape. One reason is that this will happen inevitably as more and more enterprise applications and platforms add social computing features and companies proceed along that vendor’s upgrade path. So, while social impinging around the edges of enterprise applications is worth dealing with from a strategic perspective, it’s going to happen largely whether organizations plan for it or not. As such, it’s not likely to make a huge competitive or qualitative difference in the way most businesses perform. That is, unless they start the process of deliberate and strategic social business transformation, such as what IBM and a few other large organizations have begun.
This process of social business transformation will require both advances in social technology — such as the innovations below — as well as changes to the way we do business. Fortunately, one of the great attributes of the larger social business community is that it generally focuses as much on the business and cultural changes as it does the enabling technology. Some of the best discussions I’ve seen on the people aspect of the transition to the social enterprise are from folks like Luis Suarez, Sameer Patel, Stowe Boyd, and JP Rangaswami, who are just part of a much larger conversation about how we remake our organizations for the 21st century.
So, while there are certainly some companies not tracking the sea changes in the world right now in terms of the way we are globally transforming the way we live and work, we’re also continuing to see fascinating next-generation innovations in social business. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Rethinking Workflow, Manufacturing, and Money in Social Business Terms
In just the last week I’ve encountered several fascinating offshoots of the mainstream social business thread. Social business frequently focuses either on social engagement externally or internally on collaboration and social interaction between workers. This is a limiting view, but it’s also where most of the activity and uptake is today. However, as more and more business leaders and entrepreneurs become digital natives, I’ve theorized that the power laws and principles of social business will encourage them to rethink their traditional modes of business. At the same time, Web startups and large software vendors often put themselves out 2-3 years ahead of the market by predicting where their customers will arrive once current trends reach a mainstream tipping point. Then they adjust their product roadmaps to align with this schedule. The combination of these two trends is starting to give us some interesting new possibilities.
I say possibilities, because unlike social collaboration or Social CRM, the outlook and growth potential for these innovation is still unknown. However, it does give us a sense of what’s coming next in social business.
Last week while I was speaking at Sibos, I had the pleasure of speaking on the phone with Sandra Moran from OpenText Metastorm, a leading workflow/BPM product that recently announced the addition of social computing features to its capabilities. Metastorm now enables workers to engage in real collaborative process design, takes advantage of social profiles to locate needed expertise to plug workers into processes in essentially real-time, and has matching dashboards to provide BPM and social analytics. OpenText had this to say about the new social capabilities, which Sandra told me is now available to over a thousand major customers as a standard part of the Metastorm suite:
These new product enhancements help organizations successfully implement business process improvement initiatives by empowering users to become more engaged and productive. Metastorm’s social collaboration tools provide businesses with a highly personalized workspace and unparalleled access to top contributors, enabling them to drive innovation and increase collaboration and improve efficiency among employees. These tools help employees find other people within their organization with specific skill sets required to help them complete their work. Companies can also route work to the most appropriate employee based on individual skills and workload – ensuring the most cost-effective strategy for work allocation.
I think this is significant for a few reasons. For one, I find that there’s often not enough focus in social tools in collapsing the walls between business processes and social conversations. They often run in parallel, side-by-side, even when they are being used simultaneously for the same piece of work. Putting social in the flow of work in highly process-intensive environments should lead to some interesting outcomes. I pressed Sandra on if there was leverage in Metastorm of existing social graphs and networks, and she indicated there was. What remains to be seen is how easy it will be to integrate the resulting BPM environment with an enterprise’s other social business efforts.
I’ll be exploring the social features of Metastorm in more detail soon on ZDNet, but I think the combination of social computing and BPM has genuine potential. This isn’t the first time social and workflow have been connected but I think it’ll be impactful given their large customer base and how central and useful the features are to the product. I’m hoping to revisit how their customers are faring in a year or so to see what the result has been. I currently believe social BPM technology, combined with the right business and cultural changes, will help companies attain a higher than average level of social business transformation.
Social On The Shop Floor
Earlier this month Derek Singleton over at the Software Advice blog wrote about social manufacturing, what you could call a new subfield of social business that’s focused on improving how companies turn raw materials into finished goods. Discussing Kenandy’s new announcement for improving the efficiency and productivity of supply chain manufacturing, Derek wrote:
Creating accessible and actionable inter-shop floor communication can only work if an entire supply chain and other manufacturers are members of, and logged into, Chatter. In short, it requires organizational change for effective use. While manufacturers using Kenandy wait for that changeover, Chatter can be a useful tool for project management. For instance, the engineer of an aerospace job shop could notify shop labor that they’ve just finished designing the wing component of an aircraft. The job shop could then begin building the wing while the engineer finishes designing the other components they’ve been contracted to build. This has great implications for just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing – as it frees up labor to work on more value-added activities rather than waiting for the completion of another phase of the production.
In my workshops at Enterprise 2.0 Conference in years past, I’ve had manufacturers and assembly line managers come up to me to say that social tools have been moving into their area of the business, but it’s mostly been horizontal tools or very focused niche solutions. We’re now seeing broader and more strategic use of social tools with the arrival of solutions such as the Kenandy social manufacturing platform, which has garnered attention in the New York Times. I’ll be exploring this further in coming months to see whether social manufacturing leads to tactical or substantive social business transformation.
The Rise of Social Currency
Finally, at Sibos itself last week, I participated in Innotribe, a social media event inside the main financial services conference that explored various aspects of social media in financial services. For a more in-depth look, I wrote up a detailed exploration of the event on ZDNet on Friday. One of the more interesting and visionary topics at the conference was the subject of social currency, the transformation of the very concept of money in social world where reputation, trust, and openness are prized much more than information control, the latter which is how the financial industry is mostly structured to leverage for gain today.
As an experiment, a social currency called Reputone was actually in use at Innotribe, see picture right. In fact, peer-to-peer monetary systems such as Bitcoin were a hot topic at Innotribe and for good reason, it represents a major shift of control in how banking, money transfer, and investment will work in the future. If Paypal was the first generation of digital money, then Bitcoin is the Web 2.0 version. From their Web site:
Bitcoin is a new digital currency that enables instant payments to anyone, anywhere in the world. Bitcoin uses peer-to-peer technology to operate with no central authority: managing transactions and issuing money are carried out collectively by the network.
Mark Shead recently provided a good overview to Bitcoin concepts and is worth taking a look at. In the final analysis, Bitcoin falls a bit short of being a true social currency, in that it doesn’t have an explicit capital mechanism based on social graphs or other means that leverages the intrinsic worth of social status and reputation. That doesn’t mean it should be watched closely as money and social reputation appear ready to get deeply intertwined and Bitcoin is at the leading edge of digital currency at the moment. This is a subject that warrants a lot more exploration as companies such as Facebook look at making their global platforms far more relevant from an economic perspective. For additional insight, David Armano posted some useful insights on social currency recently on his Harvard Business blog.
I’ll be exploring all of these concepts in more detail in coming months as social business continues to evolve. I would love your questions and feedback on this emerging social business topics below.