Cutting Through the Social Noise
There is a lot of noise around social these days – and I admit that I am regularly adding to that noise. The problem is that definitions suck. As more companies are looking more closely at their enterprise content management and internal collaboration initiatives, trying to figure out the business value that these systems really provide, stakeholders are increasingly asking the question: what is the role of social computing in the enterprise? They want to know the business value of these tools and the billion vendors (ok, slightly less than a billion) pushing solutions out the door. They want to know what best practices can be applied to their organization today, and the tactical steps that will help them better communicate with their teams, their partners, and their customers.
Companies don’t need more articles telling them that they need social. What they need are case studies, real-world examples of the benefits social can provide.
Much of the confusion out there comes from the "apples versus oranges" comparisons of the various consumer-based solutions (Facebook, Twitter, etc), and a misunderstanding of what features among them can actually be applied in the enterprise. The fact is that platforms like SharePoint have provided social capabilities for years, arguably more than most companies are culturally ready to employ. But people compare their enterprise platforms to consumer-based solutions, and want everything to work just as seamlessly on their phone or on their tablet as on their desktop or laptop. THAT is where innovation has increased over the past couple years in social. The features, i would argue, are not new (for the most part) but the user experience has improved tremendously.
But back to the problem of defining social computing needs. Human nature (at least within the Information Worker crowd) is to solve problems before you understand the scope and scale of the problem. We start picking out features, and tend to force fit what we have selected onto our problems. With social tools (and collaboration, in general), you really do need to understand what it is you are trying to solve before you buy.
Here’s the key to understanding social: the fundamental element of any social computing solution and of any content management platform, and the key to linking the two together, is search (which is enabled through metadata). Social tools help surface data, they unlock silos of expertise, and they help instill a sense of community. But underneath all of that is more than group chat – its the ability to connect to, search for, and find data. Metadata is attached to all of your content, it organizes and differentiates your lists and libraries, and it enables your workflows and forms. When used in concert with a collaboration platform, such as SharePoint, your metadata layer interacts with your structured taxonomy and your unstructured folksonomy, or end user-generated keywords, and provides order and purpose to your content and to your platform by powering search.
Through interaction with social tools, end users introduce context to data. They tag, they link, they Like, they rate, they share, they talk about it, and across all of this they build intricate webs of connections between people and activities and content – all of which make your content more searchable, more findable. THAT is the business value of social. And that’s the long version of my explanation of social.
Many problems in the world struggle for answers because they are not properly defined. I believe this to be the case with the social dilemma. Now that you have this fundamental understanding of how metadata and social work together to power search, maybe you can step back and look at these shiny new social tools with a clearer understanding of how they can (or can’t) add value to your organization.