When Does "Social" Just Mean Not Having To Talk To You?

Orlando may be the fun capital of the world, but last week it was also the social capital, thanks to the IBM Connect Conference. The conference was a classic IBM event with sessions like “Engage Users with Dynamic Webforms,” and “Debugging Server Side Javascript” and loads of technology and product displays. But what stood out was that nearly every sign at the show had the word "social" in front of it--social business, social email, social apps, social content, social buzz, social biz, social talk (what other kind of talk is there?), and even social cafe (and just what is an "unsocial" cafe, exactly?).

In actuality, the point of the conference was to introduce products and technologies that help people work together more efficiently. But isn’t it ironic that with these tools, "social" now means IM-ing a colleague in the next cubicle rather than getting up and talking to them? How many of us use social software like Webex or GoToMeeting to participate in conference calls, yet spend the duration of the call tuning out so we can get some "real" work done? (“What was that? Sorry, I was on mute…”) And how many of us use social tools like microblogging, IM, or even email as a way to avoid talking to people directly? Tell me, how social is that? The reality is that with social tools, it is getting harder to convince people to pick up the phone and short circuit the endless email threads, which are productivity sinkholes. So with these social tools, are we really more social?

Truth is that social initiatives are only marginally about technology and products; they are primarily about bringing people together and changing communications patterns to increase productivity. Yet, the tools that bring us together can also keep us apart, so introducing them without a comprehensive plan may introduce an enormous boomerang effect. It’s mind boggling that organizations continue to buy social and collaboration tools and expect people to use them without thinking about what they are really trying to achieve.

At the highest level, there must be a business reason for adopting a social tool, other than “our competitors are doing it.” Some reasons include the ability to respond to opportunities faster and more accurately, the ability to answer customer inquiries faster, or the ability to ensure the organization meets government or industry directives. But tools don’t accomplish these tasks, they just facilitate a well-defined business plan.

So if you or your company are considering social tools, here are some questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What is your business goal?
  2. What do you need to do to achieve your business goal? Sometimes, it may be as simple as creating order out of an existing chaotic business process. For example, it might be streamlining the review process of important contract or proposal documents, or creating a knowledge base of sales prospect objections.
  3. Can a product or technology help solve this problem? Often, problems associated with chaos or inefficiency can be mitigated by technology if people use the technology properly…and that is a huge "if." (We’ll come back to that in a moment.) For example, tools like Microsoft SharePoint and IBM Connections are frameworks for creating a process for document sharing that can eliminate the endless loops of email document attachments. Microblogging products like Yammer or Chatter can provide a communications channel for sales people to share and discuss prospect objections.
  4. Once selected, how do you get people to actually use the products? This is the most overlooked step in considering new technology. The "build it and they will come" strategy is always a failure. Assuming that the product is so intuitive, people will just gravitate to it is just wishful thinking. The reality is that modifying people’s behavior is by far the most difficult part of any business change because change is a hassle and people rarely see any benefits of doing things differently. A lot of thought has to go into this stage, which is really the most social stage of all.
  5. How do you measure success? You need to figure out if the investment in the social tool was worth the effort. This doesn’t need to be a complicated return on investment (ROI) calculation. Simply, is your business better off or not as a result of this initiative? There are many ways to measure this, but the easiest is gauging whether you are meeting the goals defined in step #1.

Having these answers will be important when that social software vendor comes a-knockin’ at your door (or sends you a tweet to avoid talking to you directly). I would be interested in hearing about your experiences...by Twitter or email, of course.

--Author David Lavenda is a product strategy and marketing executive at a high-tech company. He also does academic research on information overload in organizations and he is an international scholar for the Society for the History of Technology. He tweets from @dlavenda.

[Image: Flickr user Steve Hanna]

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