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At some point during your social business journey, you’ll figure out that being the new kid on the block or having the latest shiny new tool in your communications box only takes you so far. The novelty of today is the legacy of tomorrow. And, come on, “social” is not even that new anymore, so you can’t keep playing that innovation card.

Boxing Day at Eaton Center

After a while, you’ll have to figure out what is the real difference between your social business platform, and all the communications and collaboration products that preceded it, like your intranet web content management system, your corporate wiki, your SharePoint or Lotus Notes, email and telephones. Otherwise, instead of solving a problem, you are simply adding to it by fragmenting the communications framework even further. Unless you can articulate the rationale for “yet another tool” and demonstrate the advantages in practice, your late adopters are unlikely to embrace it, and they will stick to what they are used to. What is the real unique benefit your social platform brings to your organization that you didn’t have before it? (Previous entries in this series: 1. Your choice of social platform does matter; 2. Beware of the social digital divide(s); 3. Metrics – social business friend or foe?)

First, let’s admit that the other platforms mentioned above in fact do some things very well, and should not be just dismissed as old.

  1. Email / telephones: it is ubiquitous. Senior executives, middle management, interns, your clients, your business partners, your friends and your family – everybody has an email account and a phone number. These are the most pervasive of all communication tools, and both will be with us for years to come. And in business settings, it’s our communication life lines: they are there whenever you need them.
  2. SharePoint and Lotus Notes: you can go simple (sharing files) or complex (workflows, extensions, integration points) with them. They are essentially richly featured collaboration and development platforms to create whatever your imagination (and the technical skills of  those implementing it) can come up with.
  3. Wikis: they showed the potential behind a more “social” model of authorship, and Wikipedia is still proof that the model can be very effective under ideal conditions.
  4. Intranet / Web Content Management Systems: it mimics the Internet as we were introduced to it almost 20 years ago. You can create beautifully designed websites with complex publishing and archiving schedules, structured navigation and strong multilingual support.

Knowing all that, do we really need anything else? Why should we even consider bringing something else to the organization?

Over time, you’ll notice that the tools above meet specialized communication needs well, but fall short for mass collaboration. As content grows exponentially, organizations become more global and knowledge is no longer held by a few experts, but spread throughout the workforce. Those tools’ limitations are becoming exposed.

  • Email and telephones are great peer-to-peer tools, excellent for targeted messaging with people you already know. However, unless your are a spammer or a telemarketer, you don’t email or call people you don’t know. Communications using those two channels are destined to be hard to reuse broadly. That’s convenient for private or sensitive conversations, but insufficient for content that would benefit more than those already participating in the exchange of information.
  • SharePoint and Lotus Notes tend to create collaboration rooms, working great for people who know they exist and how to find them, but are rarely found by serendipity. So much rich content exists in those repositories, but most people in your organization can’t find them.
  • Traditional Web Content Management Systems tend to create online versions of brochures. They are great for broadcasting messages, but not that good for promoting two-way conversations.
  • Even wikis, who are supposed to be social, are mostly one-trick ponies. Most of them never enjoyed the sustained success of Wikipedia in the corporate world.

All of those are excellent tools in themselves, but they’re similar to specialized retail stores – think of them as fancy restaurants at the outskirts of your city. Some of them will be extremely successful: there will be lines at their doors, and they will be bringing value and an unparalleled user experience for those lucky enough to use those services. Many of them though will suffer from low activity, or will be visited once in a lifetime by each customer they manage to attract to their doors.

The social business platform is very limited in terms of specialized features. Their capabilities tend to be very rudimentary compared to the ones you find in their predecessors, to the point you may feel that you are using Notepad when you could be using  Microsoft Word. However, they have something that none of the others can claim: they have the masses–the eyeballs and the user traffic that conventional tools can only dream of achieving. They are like a very popular shopping mall: you may come one day just to have a quick bite at the food court, but end up buying toothpaste, having a haircut, or buying a book that you did not know existed.

Note that this analogy works in more ways than one: there are plenty of retail stores that can survive well without being located in a mall, so this is not to diminish the value of other tools. They still have important roles to play in our working lives. But the social platforms, if made pervasive enough in your organization, will enable you to communicate in ways that never happened before: by leveraging serendipity and user interactions that were shut out by specialized, siloed, or peer-to-peer.

As social business platforms become more mature, they will overgrow the shopping mall metaphor, and will become a communications hub, with integration points with all of your other enterprise platforms. That integrated hub will allow you to communicate using the tool you feel most comfortable with, knowing that somehow, behind the scenes, all those conversations will flow back and forth from/to the social platform. In other words, you’ll be able to get that fabulous dessert from your favorite restaurant and work out at your gym of choice without having to leave the mall. Suddenly, the burgeoning metropolis that is your organization will feel just as cozy and friendly as a small village, where people and knowledge are out there when you need them the most.

Main photo credit: williamcho via photopin cc

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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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