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There is a lot of hype and skepticism around the actual ability for social software to deliver real, sustainable business value, which makes social software no different than every other new kind of software that comes down the pike. At the same time that so many are on the edge of their seats with excitement about its untapped potential, others are rolling their eyes at yet another unproven technology that is grabbing precious attention. Understanding how this process works at different levels and aligning your decisions to that can be instrumental in having a successful roll-out at your organization.

Technologists working with innovation are very familiar with Gartner’s hype cycle framework and its most known artifact, the hype curve:

English: Gartner Research's Hype Cycle diagram

Gartner Research’s Hype Cycle diagram (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In case you don’t know much about how the hype cycles work, here’s how Gartner summarizes it:

When new technologies make bold promises, how do you discern the hype from what’s commercially viable? And when will such claims pay off, if at all? Gartner Hype Cycles provide a graphic representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and applications, and how they are potentially relevant to solving real business problems and exploiting new opportunities. Gartner Hype Cycle methodology gives you a view of how a technology or application will evolve over time, providing a sound source of insight to manage its deployment within the context of your specific business goals.

As with anything else, there’s no shortage of criticism against the hype cycle framework, but this tool does have the merit of highlighting how people’s attitude or expectations towards technology changes over time. One seldom explored aspect of hype cycles is that there are at least three perspectives that may come handy in your journey to implement social technologies at your own organization.

The first perspective is the industry one: Gartner produces year after year reports about the hype cycle for social software, and picks a spot in the hype curve for each flavor of what can included in that somewhat vague umbrella. You can find a glimpse of what that looked this year here. The industry perspective tells you what everybody is doing in the aggregate, but has limited practical value for you or your organization beyond making a decision on doing it now or waiting for it to mature.

The second perspective is that from your own organization.  Some (rare) companies are already embracing social technologies all the way for years now, to the point it’s already ingrained in the way they run their businesses – arguably close to the so-called plateau of productivity. Others – likely the majority of companies out there – are still, to a large extent – starting to go up or down the early part of the curve. Understanding where your organization is in the curve can be useful when preparing plans and roadmaps, but still can’t be used for most of the hard decisions you have to make every day.

The third perspective is often overlooked: where each individual user of the platform is toward their own familiarity with social software. Each individual in your organization has a relationship with social software that can be plotted in that continuum. Some people have very low awareness around what that is, while others have already drunk all the Kool-Aid they could handle and are in overdrive hype mode. Some had tried it, couldn’t get much out of it and think now it’s all talk but not much substance while others would have gone through all those ups and downs and are finally realizing the business value promise they heard about in those distant “web 2.0″ years. Understanding where individual users are in their personal hype curve towards social software is a key success factor when making the countless tactical decisions about where to invest your time and efforts in the deployment of a corporate social networking platform.

Michael E. Porter reminded us long ago that “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. “ By knowing where the pockets of users in each hype cycle stage are in your organization, you can avoid the trap of trying to have all users adopting your platform at once. Having them going through hype peaks and valleys at different times will actually help you to keep the enterprise momentum over a long period of time. Sometimes your best course of action to handle skeptical users IS to do nothing now, as long as they part of your long term strategy. On the other side, you should reach out to those on their way up the technology trigger or close to the hype peak early in the process to generate and keep the momentum.

Bringing the whole organization to adopt a social business platform is a major undertaking You may sometimes feel like Moses trying to shepherd thousands of people through a 40-year journey across the desert to reach the promised land. Having a deep understanding of the three dimensions listed above can go a long way in ensuring you survive that journey. This being a social undertaking makes the individual perspective particularly important: see that as diversifying your investment portfolio. By having different groups in your organization riding distinct parts of the hype curve, you ensure that the valleys are not too deep or too long, and that the fall from the hype peak is not so severe that would compromise your ability to take the users to the elusive plateau of productivity.

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Aaron Kim

About Aaron Kim

Aaron Kim currently heads the Digital Social Collaboration Centre of Excellence at RBC. In the past, he tried his hand as solutions architect, Basel II consultant, performance engineer, Java programmer, Unix administrator, and environmental biologist. He’s married to Tania and they have a son, Lucas.

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