Although I’m a technologist by trade, I’ve long been disabused of the notion that social business is first and foremost a technical discipline. While almost certainly a bit more art than science at the moment, it’s the human aspects of how social media changes the way we think and work that are ultimately the most important. These aspects are also the most challenging in terms of how to drive the effective cultural and organizational changes that lead to a successful outcome.
In fact, without addressing the human dimension head on, the power intrinsic to these new fundamentally open and participative methods of getting work done just won’t be properly harnessed. To try to help us get there, last year I explored the “soft” yet critically important adoption issues of social business for both internal and external purposes that got into the details of how to address the people issues.
However, despite all of this, I still find that technology tends to grab mindshare almost right away in many social business discussions. Acquiring a social tool is often a means in and of itself, as if it represents the largest and most important part of the effort.
I should be very clear here: An extended exploration of social tech at some point is almost always necessary; while you can still be a social business without using any of the technology trappings, in the end it’s pretty hard going without the tools that naturally support the new social structure and processes within the organization. Most such attempts will end up largely reverting to the old way of working, which is inherently supported by the traditional technology infrastructure already in place, whether it’s e-mail, content/document management systems, CRM platforms, campaign management tools, etc. Instead, reconciliation of the existing IT portfolio with social media is required as major organizational activity.
Becoming Proactive with Social Business Design
There’s also the issue that social media now seems to be touching everything within our organizations. Everything is going social. Whether it’s merely the addition of sharing buttons on content within an existing app, or if it’s a fundamental reworking of a customer support system to be powered by mass community participation instead of trouble tickets, social is infusing our work environment in ways too numerous to count. I now hear from our clients on a regular basis that they are starting to feel “surrounded by social.” Many of them want to regain intellectual control of the changes taking place. They want to know what all the moving parts are and how they are connected. This done, they can then reason and plan about their future social landscape and better support the changes required.
A bird’s-eye view of social business today then, from an architectural perspective, can give us a detailed sense of what we’re dealing with. Hard questions can be answered: What platforms and systems are involved in the transformation to social business? How are they connected? Are the systems of record connected to the systems of engagement? In what way? Where is social data stored, how is it structured, and how can best can we analyze and derive insight from it? And so on. These sorts of questions can be addressed by creating an architectural view for your organization that makes sense of the social technology onslaught, for there’s really no better word for what’s happening today.
To help organizations get started, I’ve provided above a notional and non-industry specific view of the high-level architecture of a social business. This view contains most of the key elements for the typical organization and how they are connected. It’s not a process view; architecture is primarily concerned about structural concepts and how they are related. For a dynamic perspective over time, I’ve explored the virtuous social business cycle before, though individual social business processes will all have their own unique and socially co-created workflow.
Instead, this is about the nouns, something I’ve explored at an even higher level with a enumeration of what is contained in the social business stack, a useful way of cross-checking the total palette that a social business effort can pull from.
Update: As I posted this, Haydn Shaughnessy of Forbes added to the conversation, rightly observing that the social business stack mentioned above is not about process. He however, has proposed a process-based stack worth taking a look at.
The architectural view presented here is by definition incomplete and only goes down to a certain level of detail, yet I believe it’s one of the most updated views of social business architecture available. Some of the elements that have been incorporated, such as unified communication, will be slightly controversial, yet if they are included here, the element is important and frequently encountered. In fact, the real point is that virtually all aspects of the enterprise will eventually have to reconcile with social in some way. Sometimes this will be almost automatic and sometimes it will be a major technical, political, or cultural battle. Technology adherence has aspects of religion to it in most organizations. So while the picture presented here looks attractive and compelling, it’s also one that will be far more complex and messier in reality.
This said, creating the picture of the architecture of your social business will help you be more proactive, innovative, and focused, all while also helping you communicate the changes that need to happen in your organization.
Elements of a Social Business Architecture
In terms of the specific elements of the notional architecture above, they are worth some detailed explanation, which you can find below, going roughly from left to right in the visual. Note: You can expand the visual above to full size by clicking on it.
- Social Media Platforms. For social business activities that must connect with the world at large, these represent all the many social networks and communities that exist, from Facebook and Twitter down to the most obscure vertical or industry-specific community site.
- External Social Business Services. These are the services that the company has deliberately crafted to engage the world. This can be community-powered solutions made from scratch or services such as social media marketing or crowdsourcing that taps into existing communities. These can include social product development, social marketing, Social CRM, B2B communities, and an endless variety of other social business services over time.
- Service Delivery. While mobile-first is something that I’m now starting to see as a strategy from large company CIOs, the Web is still the biggest market though that will change in the next year. A large percentage of social business solutions will require a native mobile app going forward as well as distribution through a consumer or enterprise app store. There are now even social app stores from major vendors. Cloud delivery is increasingly the preference for most new vendor-provided (non-internally developed) social business solutions. Consumerization is having a profound impact on how applications of all kinds are developed, acquired, and used today and this is transforming service delivery of social business as well.
- Social Foundation. An effective social business has a set of consistent identities for its workers across all social apps as well as powerful and effective discovery and search mechanisms that are fully federated and take a look at the entire link ecosystem of the organization. That social apps produce linked data that can be accessed by search engines, other apps (social or otherwise) has been validated as one of the most important aspects of social architecture. This is so vital I will be devoting an upcoming research effort on this. However, I find that there is often very poor emphasis on creating a healthy social data ecosystem so it’s emphasized on this view. The bottom line: Much of the longer-term ROI comes from keeping social data open, analyzable, and discoverable over time. Finally, a potent listening, analytics, and social business intelligence capability (within and outside the business) has become an essential capability to create, typically located inside the social business unit or center of excellence (CoE.)
- Systems of Engagement. These are the primary social environments within the organization, as well as departmental social apps. These typical include a social intranet, an enterprise social network or ESN (Jive, Connections, SharePoint + Newsgator are the most common), unified communications platform (with support for social media), and even e-mail, which is very common and convenient on-ramp, off-ramp for social notifications and related activities, though it must be integrated with care. Social apps are often connected with the ESN’s activity stream and is a primary integration point with systems of record. The OpenSocial standard continues to show promise along with feeds and open APIs to bridge the engagement world with the transaction world as part of a well-organized yet lightweight integration effort.
- Systems of Record. Long the bastion and core competency of IT departments, systems of record are now being reconciled with the engagement world. Connecting vital supply chain, ERP, human resources, and customer relationship management systems with the unstructured work in the organization is essential and has been a major realization in the Enterprise 2.0 community over the last year. Social business must be connected to the lifeblood of data and transactions in the company to improve collaboration, reduce data duplication and inaccuracy, and to use social as the connective tissue for real, on-the-ground work.
To wrap up, I’d like to reiterate that this is a high-level view that must be adapted to the realities of your organization. A real social business architecture has several additional layers of details including security platforms that understand social media, run-time management and governance components, and much more. The purpose of this is to put a line in the sand, create a starting point for those trying to create an up-to-date view of social business architecture, and to spur discussion so that the subject can be better understood and articulated to the industry as a whole as they move their businesses into the digital/social era.