Social networks v collaboration tools

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It seems that social networks, what they are, what they do, does an enterprise need one, etc are the topic of the moment when I am meeting people. Possibly this is because the cloud message has been heard enough times that it has reached a stage where a CIO has either grasped what it means […]

It seems that social networks, what they are, what they do, does an enterprise need one, etc are the topic of the moment when I am meeting people. Possibly this is because the cloud message has been heard enough times that it has reached a stage where a CIO has either grasped what it means to them in the next year, or given up! Relatively commonly, it’s because they have social networks springing up all over their enterprise as at least some of their employees decide to make use of the capabilities. There is a last group and it’s those who have invested in good quality collaboration tools and don’t see why they are not being used, or why social networks are needed as well.
At Capgemini we have learnt a lot about this topic and now have several social networks. The main one is based on Yammer and after two years now it covers 12,500 people, and is growing exponentially. We also have a great wiki-based knowledge management system (based on Drupal) that has been in place even longer, and are rolling out a collaboration capability, based on Sharepoint and Google. The first and obvious question is why do you need three different tools?

The simple answer is that they are complementary. Content that is important and will be reused is in our knowledge management system as you would expect. When we have made a decision to react to a situation then we use the collaboration tools for a defined group of people to work together to deliver the required result. Both of these are ‘managed’ capabilities for the effective operation of Capgemini, meaning there are decisions made, and enacted, that relate to recognisable operation goals. Therefore the use of, and benefit case for both collaboration and knowledge management tools and capabilities is relatively clear and understandable to CIOs and the business.
So why are so many people in the enterprise reaching outside this effective framework to find and use social networks? The answer is that unlike collaboration tools which are task centric and knowledge management tools which are content centric, social networks are people centric. In essence they are the chance corridor meeting, or the informal question to the person at the next desk, as a virtual environment covering many more people than the physical medium. And the problems that they solve are the unexpected, un-planned and unstructured events that are come up in their daily work.
The current method of solving this is to email the question to all the people you know by name, which is a limited, sub-set of the entire enterprise, and more than likely those in your area with similar limited horizons. The result of mailing in this manner to twenty people is that whilst maybe one knows and the other nineteen had their time wasted. Worse, how do you know this sole answer is the right or best answer? The constant tide of email is not just interfering with the real job, in some cases it has become the job as managers seek to constantly ‘manage’ these events.
Social networking allows people to define themselves by the interests or knowledge so that the same question would go to only those people who were directly interested and possibly able to answer. This means people unknown to the questioner, and spread throughout the enterprise thus ensuring replies are more likely to reflect the total expertise available to the enterprise. Does this work? Yes, in my own case there has been a sharp drop in my email, as much as 30 to 40%, though at the same time I regularly answer social networking posts where I have value to offer.
But why aren’t these answers in our knowledge management system? Well sometimes the answer does point to content that resides there, but mostly this is all about ephemeral personal expertise sharing that really isn’t worth capturing in all its detail on the off chance it might be useful. Just think about all the content or expertise that resides in your enterprise’s people! It’s too much to capture, index and store on the off chance that you could find the right answer at the right time, and in any case a large amount of this kind of expertise is constantly changing.
So in Capgemini the constant flow on our social network deals with the hundreds of questions each day that occur in our technology operations all over the world. And yes some of these will result in moving towards indicated content in our knowledge management system, and sometimes we need collaborative tools to team together as well. But most of all social networking means the ability for an individual to answer that all too frequent question; ‘I wish I knew who knows the answer to this’.
So not surprisingly that ability coupled with Metcalf’s law of networking; ‘the value of a network rises exponentially in proportion to the number of users’, has ensured that we are experiencing ever increasing membership. At this point all of the value looks to be for users with a less clear payoff for the enterprise and as a deliberately unstructured environment it looks terrifying to most managers!
On the delivered benefit side, successful business issues answered are tagged ‘benefit’ so there is a running index of the value being provided, and it is considerable by the way. However more importantly for managers they can see who are the experts on the various topics, the individuals with real expertise that is genuinely usable quickly show up. So do the topics! And here for the first time is a rich feed of what is actually happening as an enterprise ‘works’ in terms of every day operations and in respect to the market. Our CEO and our CFO are both members as are a selection of other senior executives, and they are able to see and respond quickly to trends or repetitive issues.
There is a whole separate blog on how to track and analyse this rich stream of real-time information as part of the needs of an agile enterprise to read and respond. Some of the most relevant sources of business intelligence are not outside the enterprise; they lie inside the enterprise in the expertise and activies of key employees! So don’t forget that if you deploy social CRM to read your market and customers better then there will be an internal challenge in creating value from this rich new source of non structured information that is going to drive you towards deploying social tools internally!
I hate to advertise, but this was the point that Nick Earle and I made in our book ‘Mesh Collaboration’ two years ago when the best in class enterprises where already moving into using ‘social’ tools! I should also say that I found it frustrating to see how little practical advice/comment/blogs there has been on the enterprise use of social networking as an effective internal tool. The most appropriate and interesting is from Craig Roth of Gartner in his post on September 10th, which suggests he too is seeing the same point in the market as I am.

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This blog post belongs to the series Future of CRM.