Monday, October 18, 2010

Putting the "Social" Back in Social Networking

Sharif Sakr may be on to something.  Those who do not recognize the name may have missed my “Understanding Misunderstanding” post last week, when I introduced him as the “Technology of Business reporter” for BBC News.  The post was concerned with an article that he wrote about the nature of business communication and the extent to which it may be facilitated by “technologies of simulacra” (my phrase, not his), such as avatars.  Today he has a piece about social software in business settings;  and, while a sample space of two rarely provides a meaningful statistic, what he “may be on to” is the recognition of just how fundamental communication is to the operation of just about any business.  Thus, while last week he considered the question of whether communication through avatars could be as effective as face-to-face encounters, this week he takes on the role of communication through social software in the workplace, thereby shifting the topic into the domain of “knowledge sharing” and “knowledge creation” or innovation.

By way of a case study, he considers Salesforce Chatter and its use by Scancom, a small British business that supplies software products for Blackberry users.  For the Managing Director of this company, Chen Kotecha, efficient software development is critical for the survival of the business.  Products have to be delivered rapidly and flawlessly.  Thus, it is important that any developer who hits a snag be able to leverage the experience of other developers who may have encountered similar problems, particularly when one of those others successfully resolved the problem.  Kotecha believes that Chatter encourages ongoing communication in his facility through which such “knowledge sharing” is enabled.

However, Sakr then takes an interesting twist to address whether or not Scancom constitutes a representative case study.  He considers larger and more sophisticated products, such as the Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite and encounters skepticism from a representative of the Gartner Group, which puts a lot of effort into dispassionate analysis of new technologies:

"Most corporate collaboration tools are designed by people who aren't socially adept", says Gartner analyst Tom Austin.

"Google and Microsoft are populated by engineers and they are failures at social tools."

Austin's view is perhaps borne out by the fate of Google Wave - an attempt to merge document sharing with social networking, which was abandoned due to lack of interest.

The only way in which I might disagree with Austin is that, where he sees ineptitude, which may just be innocuous, I see psychopathology that reveals itself through painful consequences on an all-too-regular basis.  Indeed, in light of the “It Gets Better” movement that has arisen to counteract the bullying of young homosexuals, for which social software has been poignantly instrumental, I would say that, from the technology point of view, things will keep getting worse.

However, through Austin’s skepticism, Sakr finds his way to the conclusion he should have known from the very beginning, which is that effective communication is more important than efficient technology.  This conclusion is reinforced through one final case study:

Meanwhile, folk at the Centre of Creative Collaboration, a small building near London's King's Cross, are quite proud of the way they do things.

People come here at 10 every Friday morning to drink coffee, share ideas and start collaborative projects - and there have been some real commercial successes.

The Centre is not like social networking, because far from immersing themselves in the distracting babble of daily business, these people deliberately remove themselves from it.

But neither is it like the more 'serious' collaborative tools, because people come here to make new acquantainces rather than stick within a regular trusted team.

The approach is based on 'open innovation' and it is far less structured than any online collaboration tool currently available.

"It's a different process, that's all", says co-founder Brian Condon.

"Just because people are having fun in a pretty informal environment, that doesn't mean they're not creating things that can deliver business advantage."

Perhaps Condon and his colleagues know something the software engineers don't.

With all due respect to Condon, what Sakr “discovered” at this Centre is something that the workplace anthropology literature has known for at least fifteen years, one of the best examples being the chapter on “War Stories” in Talking About Machines:  An Ethnography of a Modern Job by Julian E. Orr.  The “modern job” that Orr studied was that of the technicians who repair copy machines, research conducted under support from Xerox Corporation.  The “War Stories” chapter addresses the same issue of benefitting from shared experiences that was so important to efficient operations at Scancom;  but the Xerox technicians did not need technology to share their stories.  Those stories, for the most part, were exchanged in the “real” social world in which technicians would meet at a bar after work and jaw about what had happened during that day;  and, while it is true that Xerox would later try to harness technology to expand the domain of those conversations from the local bar in (for example) Denver to the entire global community of technicians, it is hard to overestimate the value of a localized communication setting in which the “full bandwidth” of social discourse (whose dimensions extend beyond to the linguistic to the paralinguistic) may be utilized.

Thus, we return to the ground that I had staked out in my “Understanding Misunderstanding” post.  The underlying problem that continues to confront business operations, regardless of the size of the business, concerns effectiveness of communication;  and, from an operational point of view, effectiveness may be evaluated on the basis of how well the communicating parties understand each other.  The bad news is that the “problem of misunderstanding,” as I put it in that earlier post, is not an engineering problem;  but this can also be turned into good news, because it means that those who manage business operations must tend to not only the support technologies that are deployed but also the people who actually use them.  Such attention must recognize that those people are as likely to arrive at their “best work” without technology assistance as with it, which means that the workplace must be a social world that can work both with the available technology and beyond any of its limitations.

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