The last 20 years saw knowledge workers adding a steady stream of tools to their repertoire: increasingly sophisticated office suite software, email, the Internet, instant messaging, voice over IP, Web conferences, and, in the last decade, a number of social technologies in the form of blogs, wikis, social networks, microblogging and others. Google+ is just the latest addition to the mix, introducing some interesting ideas to a space that seemed to be quite mature already. Nobody knows for sure if Google+ will ever dethrone Facebook and Twitter, but the buzz it created showed something already: our allegiance to any Social Platform in particular is as reliable as that of a mercenary just waiting for the highest bidder. Taking a step back, it becomes clear that we came a long way since the days where Wikipedia sounded like a misplaced hippie idea transplanted from the 60s. But make no mistake: we are still witnessing the infancy of social technologies, and there is much more to come.
Image via Wikipedia
David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, stated in an interview to the Harvard Business Review magazine earlier this year (May 2011):
Peter Drucker said that the toughest job for knowledge workers is defining the work. A century ago, 80% of the world made and moved things. You worked as long as you could, and then you slept, and then you got up and worked again. You didn’t have to triage or make executive decisions. It’s harder to be productive today because the work has become much more complex.
I have no idea of how much that percentage changed since then, but I suspect that in much of world, a significant number of workers now “make and move” knowledge and information, as opposed to physical goods. Of course, this is no earth-shattering statement, but what is sometimes missed in this obvious assertion is that the same kind of inefficiencies and constraints that limited the production and distribution of “things” one hundred years ago can be observed in the way we deal with knowledge and information today. By visualizing information as a “thing” that can be produced, distributed and consumed, we can better understand how far we still are from an efficient knowledge marketplace.
While we spend countless hours debating if email is dead, if IM is a productivity booster or killer, and if Twitter and Facebook and Google+ will be here 5 years from now, the fact of the matter is that each new social technology brings new mechanisms trying to solve the same problem: reduce inefficiencies in the way we create, capture and move information. While MySpace has likely gone the way of the Dodo, like Geocities did before it, they both introduced some memes and patterns that are still alive today. Wikipedia, blogs, podcasts, Friendster, Facebook, Twitter and FourSquare all contributed to this mix, and social business platforms are continuously incorporating several of those concepts and making them available to knowledge workers.
FedEx, Amazon, and Walmart all created a very efficient ecosystem to move goods by reducing or eliminating obstacles to efficiency. They make the complex task of moving goods a painless experience–at least most of the time. For the non-physical goods, we’re not even close to that. Information flows are inefficient across the value chain. Compared to their counterparts in the physical world, our mechanisms to digitize information are precarious, the channels to distribute it are cumbersome, and our filters to screen it are primitive.
However, eliminating inefficiencies does not necessarily mean eliminating barriers altogether. Sticking to the physical goods metaphor, while there are items that you want to distribute to everybody, like water, food, sanitation, and medication, there are others that you need to control more selectively (flowers for your wife or Punjabi-language TV shows to a Punjabi-speaking population). Some of the problems we attribute to email or Facebook communications are simply a mismatch between the medium and the nature of the message, not an intrinsic failure of the tools themselves. The Google+ concept of circles and streams are a good start, but still very far from perfect. After spending a few minutes there, you will notice that you are still getting more information than you wanted in some cases, and not even a small percentage of what you need in others. That would be unacceptable today for physical goods: just imagine you receiving all sorts of unwanted books or groceries or clothes by your door everyday, but not having a way to just get the few things you need to live a good life.
Thus, before you get too carried away with the latest and greatest social technology darling, be it FourSquare, Tumblr, Quora, Zynga, or Google+, know that we still have a long way to go. If the knowledge mountain is the Everest and social technologies are the tools to climb it, we have not even got to Kathmandu yet.