Monthly Archives: February 2011

Social Business Applications Promote Observability via Ambient Awareness

In our previous post, we discussed the issue of work observability, and the fact that in knowledge work, observability is an issue.  In any environment, people are impacted by huge amounts of information. This information is largely ambient – meaning that the information flows to people just by them being present in the environment. Whether hearing a snippet of a conversation, seeing a pile of papers appear and disappear, or simply reading body language, humans make significant judgments about what is going on around them through being bombarded tiny bits of informal, mundane information. These bits of information are so small, and are so much a part of the environment that we don’t notice that we are even processing them. This information is truly ambient – it is part of the environment.

The key to making work observable is feedback. Just like the apprentice artisan received constant feedback and information, teams that work together constantly communicate and share, building team awareness. However, that communication is constrained by time, distance and team boundaries. When working on project with distributed or very large teams, communication becomes compartmentalized even within the team. These communication and awareness boundaries reduce the observability of work.

The foundation of Social Business Application effectiveness is Ambient Awareness. Similarly to the Facebook news feed, social business software provides constant small updates on events related to a project or portfolio. This stream of small pieces of information creates what sociologists call “ambient awareness”. Rather than increasing information overload, this large number of small pieces of information create greater understanding. The New York Times described the paradox while discussing the Facebook news feed:

“This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of E.S.P.,” as Haley described it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life.

“It’s like I can distantly read everyone’s mind,” Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact, because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters about his plans, the others see it, and some decide to drop by — ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face, it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing something that one of the friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle. [Link to NY Times]

Social Business software creates context specific ambient awareness, which because of the broad set of information provided to the team makes the work visible in “surprisingly sophisticated” ways.


The Need to Make Work Observable

As work processes and products become more and more heavily focused on knowledge work and knowledge production, work has become less “observable”. Whereas in a physical production environment, the visible work product is the final work product itself, in information and knowledge work, the visible work product is often descriptions of the final work product, namely requirements documentation, specifications, and project plans.

In knowledge teams, a key issue that affects both team performance and the perception of the team by its stakeholders is the observability of “what’s going on” with the project. Too often, status communications are infrequent, untimely, and incomplete, and even within the team, there is uncertainty and confusion as to what is the current status of the project.

Observable work is a term that has been used for several years[1] and which generally defines the ability for an observer to understand the process, progress, and status of a project. Jim McGee and others have noted that as the dominant production paradigm has shifted from craft to industrial to knowledge work, the ability for an external observer to identify the process being used to create, the progress toward completion, and the overall status, including risks, has become difficult[2].

When a person desired to enter a pre-industrial, craft-oriented profession (for example, blacksmith, glazier, or watchmaker), a young apprentice would observe how the master worked, painstakingly learning by mimicking the master, failing to some extent, and then mimicking again. By receiving many small pieces of information the apprentice learned and, over time, became the master. This intense informal feedback allowed learning to occur, and this kind of feedback is what observable work is all about.

In any kind of work, the ability to communicate the what, why and how of what is being done is crucial.  In an observable work stream, this feedback is constant, but in a typical large team or distributed team environment it is missing.  Social Business Applications help to create this stream of constant feedback…more on how they do that in our next post.

What is a Social Business Application?

We’re hearing a lot about Social Business lately, especially with the emergence of social business platforms like Connections from IBM Lotus.  Social business platforms like Connections provide an enterprise and its partners a “visible” social network in the same manner that consumer social networks like Facebook do.  These social business platforms provide the basic social business framework for collaboration.

However, there is a big difference between social networking (Facebook) and social business – context.  When you use Facebook, the context is your life, and Facebook is not very good at letting you “compartmentalize” or “categorize” your life.  Essentially, if you’ve got a Facebook friend, they’re going to be a part of whatever you post on Facebook.

When you are at work, you operate in multiple disparate contexts, whether via a number of projects, or roles, or teams.  Social Business requires the concept of context, which is where social business applications come in to play.

Social business platforms provide the potential for contextual collaboration.  Many provide the ability to create simple collaborative spaces for a context.  However, business contexts are highly specialized, and custom social business applications, such as Social Project Management, and Social CRM provide far more powerful contextual collaboration than a simple “space”.

Social Business applications like Social Project Management are customized contexts for social collaboration.  They depend on the presence of a social business platform, and they add value to the social business platform by providing another “reason” for users to engage with the platform.  As more users engage with the platform, from whatever context, the social business platform gains value.

To illustrate, Metcalfe’s law states that the value of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system.  Social Business platforms seem to follow this same curve.  However, with social business applications, the value of the platform is multiplied again by the number of contexts within which the users engage on the platform.

Social Business Applications are the value multiplier of social business platforms.  They provide new reasons for users to engage with the platform, and they provide value above and beyond traditional versions of applications for all the reasons that social business platforms provide value – they connect the right resources (inside and outside of teams ) in order to get work done more efficiently and effectively.


Welcome to The Project Wall!

After our great time meeting with folks at Lotusphere, and our continued discussions with customers and partners, we realized that there’s a great deal of confusion and questions about social business platforms, and social business applications.

This blog is our attempt to both join and lead the conversation about social business software, how social business applications add value, and why social business platforms are so critical in the future.

We are sponsored by Trilog Group, but this is not a Trilog Group-centric blog. While we of course will discuss Trilog’s offerings at times, we’re hoping that this blog can be more of a forum for understanding the value of Social Project Management, and other Social Business Applications.

Stay tuned, we’ve got a lot of ideas, and a lot of questions that we want to get your input on!