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What is the big deal about the modern social business and social collaboration platforms? Is there anything unique in them that can’t be done better and faster using the toolset that preceded all the hype around social technologies? Learning a new way of collaborating and communicating is hard work, so unless there’s a strong differentiator there, most people would be unwilling to abandon the familiar and embrace the new, right?

Well, the fundamental point missed in that way of thinking is that a robust, mature social business platform is not just a Facebook-style social networking used at work. Connecting people is a necessary first step, but it feels empty very soon if it ends there. Keep reading to find out what comes after that.

Email was invented in the 1960s and we can’t deny it was already “social”, even though it was not called that 50 years ago. Bulletin Boards Systems and online forums came to life in the 1970s and Collaboration Suites like Lotus Notes are a product of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Finally, SharePoint had its first version premiering in 2001. All of those still exist today, and all have experienced some degree of success in helping groups of people to get work done collaboratively.

On the other side of this story, it’s hard to make the case that popular consumer social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, etc) can help people to get ANY work done, except for those of you who are in marketing and communications. That’s true even for the more business-y ones like LinkedIn. Most of us have been doing our jobs without the help of social networking platforms for many years. Having so many lukewarm stories about social platform implementations does not help either. So, why bother?

There seems to be nothing new under the sun IF you see a social business platform as just as a way to connect to people. Several social business platforms do a good job in emulating the Facebook experience, and typically generate a very encouraging burst of activity when launched, but after a few months, the novelty wears off. After all, there’s only so much chit-chat you can have with your colleagues at work before turning your attention to real work. Simple is good at first, but simple is simple. And real work is anything but simple.

Some social platforms offer a second layer of complexity by adding robust content capabilities. Users can post content and share it with others. That’s nice, but not new: Lotus Notes and SharePoint have been doing that for ages. What Notes and SharePoint never did though was to network the content they held. They actually excelled in compartimentalizing content in folders, sites, spaces, and databases, all just fancy names for silos of content. Those silos are great for structured content, but heavily structured content prevents content from flowing efficiently. Searchability and serendipity were sacrificed in that model. You create plenty of content there, but that content is condemned to oblivion: unless you know it exists and where it is, you’ll never find it. Good social platforms allow content to be easily connected to each other, the same way Facebook connects people. This web of networked content (manifested in features such as “more like this”, “incoming links”, “related content” and tag clouds) is a must to take true collaboration to the next level.

The third construct that needs to be made social is places. The reality of our workplace is that people come and go all the time, so if all collaboration is centered over people and content only, knowledge will follow the same pattern. There’s terrific knowledge in our collective emails. But when an employee leaves your organization, that knowledge is no longer accessible to others. Likewise, when a new employee joins your team, she/he has no access to the knowledge locked in those emails. Having places as a distinct construct allows the knowledge to persist beyond the migratory patterns of team members. Notes and SharePoint did a bit better in that area, but still had those conversations segregated in containers and poor cross-search capabilities. When places are also networked (via tags, common patterns and cross-search), a fundamental shift happens: the walls between silos melt, allowing knowledge to flow from where it’s created to where it’s needed.

In summary, robust social business platforms excel in enabling three network layers: they connect people to people, content to content and places to places. The best ones go one step beyond and treat all 3 constructs as nodes, effectively connecting people, content and places with each other. Similar to the multiple pathways in our brain and and in complex transportation systems, having a vast network of redundant and alternate routes for knowledge to flow will allow for a very resilient system. In that scenario, any given search for a specific subject area may not find the content it needs, but may bump into a person who may know something about it–or a place where those people visit often.

In other words, by networking everything, good social business platforms will increase the efficiency of the knowledge marketplace in a way that was never possible before, allowing a healthy balance between the demand and supply of information, and fostering a more engaged, satisfied population of knowledge workers.

When implementing social networking at work, keep this in mind: connecting people is just the first step of a long journey. Content is good, but not king. Communities are not an end in itself either. To maximize the value of your efforts, you need to network all three elements into a single social network of people, content and places.

(This is the 5th and last installment of this hindsight 20/20 series. 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? 4. Your social business platform as a shopping mall.)

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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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