There is a lot of buzz about the potential productivity gains of social software. Luiz Benitez tweeted a link to an article on The Province, which described a variety of situations where social software like IBM Connections was leading to perceived productivity gains.
The examples cited in the article noted the increate in productivity that occurs when people are linked together in collaborative communities. But is this really what is new about social software? Online, collaborative communities have been around for a long time.
However, those communities were usually closed, meaning that you had to be a recognized “member” of the community to get a login credential, and these collaborative communities generally failed. Why? We propose that some component of that failure has to do with the centralized control indicative of most enterprise implementations. Interestingly, this central control paradigm is hinted at in the article referenced above:
Dr. Anne Bourhis “cautioned that social networking isn’t a cure-all. She said businesses need to plan in advance how the tools will be used before they implement a new network, since there are a multitude of tools that serve very different purposes.
“You can’t use it because it’s in fashion,” she said. “You really have to understand what the need is. If it doesn’t meet the need of employees, they won’t use it.”
While we agree with the second paragraph without reservation, the first paragraph is indicative of a non-social, centralized planning approach. What businesses really need to do is to understand how to provide general purpose platforms (like an IBM Connections), along with tailored, initial business contexts through which to introduce the platform. If those tailored entry points are well thought out, the network of users will identify the next wave of uses of the platform, without any input from IT or management.
What is impossible, once an open, social system is introduced within a business context, is for a centralized planner to predict and manage where the social network will take the software. Business can plan how to introduce the platform, but cannot plan how the tools will be used. If they do so, and restrict the ways the tools “should” be used, the value of the emergent online network will be impaired.
If businesses create an open, social network, where everyone in the organization has access, and where access restrictions are kept to a minimum, the kinds of linkages that are described in the article can take place naturally. This is what is really different about social networking, in comparison to other online collaboration spaces. Rather than “pre-identifying” communities, in social networking contexts, communities emerge in practice, based upon the needs and desires of the users, not a central plan.