What if you had to give an elevator pitch on social software and why it is worth considering their application within your organization? Of course you could argue with potential benefits like easier access to knowledge, quicker contact to experts, reduced communication costs, fostering collaboration etc. These points all have clear business values and are supported by several companies who already deploy those tools. However, they are neither really new nor do they provide any insight on what makes social software different compared to traditional (office) communication tools and why these differences might offer a chance to gain some ground in achieving those goals. So, where is the novelty about it? For me in essence this comes down to three aspects: open communication, emergence and serendipity — whereas the latter two build on the first.
Open Communication: With social software any intranet transforms itself from an information repository to a medium for communication and collaboration that puts not documents but people at the centre. Instead of using closed channels like e-mail or telephone the exchange of information takes place on open platforms like wikis, blogs, microblogs or social networks. These applications do not only lower the barrier for sharing but do also push the choice of which content to consume on the side of the recipient. This shift also frees information owners from the burden to choose for whom the information might be of value. Hence, content is filtered on the way out, not in. The benefits are more awareness on current issues and the support of topic oriented networking across inner-organizational boundaries (i.e. silos). Eventually all employees (“our most valued capital”) get the ability to contribute which also opens new spaces for synergistic effects, e.g. important contributions may arise from where nobody had ever expected it.
Of course, push-oriented forms like e-mail will never be substituted totally, but open interactions can surely build an important complement in the internal communication landscape. Also hybrid forms are possible, e.g. by addressing people directly and instead of using “cc” or closed distribution lists, the message is also put on a blog accessible (and subscribable) by anybody potentially interested or willing to contribute.
Emergence: Moving from atoms to bits does not only increase divisibility and ubiquitous accessibility but also offers completely new ways of organizing content. Most importantly, structuring, filtering and aggregation can be postponed right to the time when actually needed. Drawing together contributions from various sources or users of the open platform will lead to a powerful phenomenon known as emergence: According to A. McAfeee the “appearance of global structure as the result of local interaction”. This also matches with the well known key criteria to harness the wisdom of crowds: diversity, independence, decentralization and aggregation.
Besides the openness of the platform emergence requires certain mechanisms to connect the various information elements. Hyperlinks, tags (keywords) or locally set connections between users (e.g. follower/ friendship relations) serve as a catalyst for higher order aggregation and fostering emergence. Examples can be found in tag clouds, information streams based on hash-tags, convergence of stable content on wiki pages, context embedded information and also the dynamic formation of emergent teams around certain topics. More advanced forms add some computational intelligence and derive some deeper insights like recommendations, clusters or trends.
Serendipity: Open communication takes the amount of available information to a new level. There is no doubt that this causes a serious challenge of developing new personal strategies for selection and filtering to avoid information overload. But there is also an even more important upside in terms of opening unprecedented chances of serendipity, i.e. finding or stumble upon something of personal value which was not in the scope of search in the first place. Acquiring important information at the workplace rather by accident than by a focused search is already well known from the famous water cooler conversations or just any coincidental small talk with colleagues outside the daily project environment. Social software, however, scales the water cooler spot to a company wide meeting place and does in a way dissolve the coincidence of meeting the right person at a certain location and at the same time.
At Capgemini we experience open communication, emergence and serendipity by using Yammer as our internal microblogging platform. Each message, i.e. ‘yam’, is open to read and to comment for everybody within the company. The user experience clearly indicates that this fosters the exchange of knowledge, increases the awareness on current issues and eventually strengthens the sense of belonging to a great multinational organisation with shared goals and issues. With keyword or tag based search, tag clouds or the analysis of follower relations valuable insights of content, structure and relationships emerge. Emergent interactions take place in topic oriented groups or threaded discussions, regardless of position or hierarchy. Diving into the yams from time to time users frequently report on finding useful information they had never known that it existed or how to search for. Since all posts are clearly linked to people they are often the starting point of a fruitful collaboration across any predefined organisational structure leveraging the knowledge comprised in a 90.000 people organisation.
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