Enterprise social networking technology holds a growing allure for business executives looking to blend collaboration and camaraderie with a hard-nosed focus on the bottom line. But much like world peace and the end of poverty, "social collaboration" is more ideal than reality.
The technology initially took off, followed by an almost equally rapid falloff. Two recent changes in the market, however, bode well for increased adoption of enterprise social networking software. One, vendors are finally acknowledging that they need to deal with the problem no one likes to dwell on: The notion of social collaboration -- everyone in the enterprise sharing information and working together -- is too hard to be left to the people who need to collaborate. And two, one of the best uses for the technology comes, ironically, not from connecting people to people but from connecting inanimate machines to people -- as well as to other machines.
Driving these market shifts is the painful realization, now that organizations have some experience with enterprise social networking software, that many people aren't born particularly social or collaborative. The end result is technology that facilitates something people don't always do that well merely automates mediocrity. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has studied the social origins of collaboration: Thomas Hobbes argued way back in the 17th century that ruthless competition, not congenial cooperation, was the dominant behavioral paradigm of an innately selfish species. Life, Hobbes famously said, was "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."
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The philosopher's conclusion, that cooperation only happens under the watchful eye of a strong central government, has been vilified by social commentators ever since. But in the modern corporation -- a hierarchical, centrally organized system that would make Hobbes feel right at home -- his point is well taken. The failure of the "build it and they will cooperate" vision for enterprise social networking software has proven Hobbes right once again.
What the market has realized instead -- whether vendors are taking their cues from Hobbes or not -- is that social collaboration craves a centralizing governing force. That doesn't mean the boss must lead and curate the effort, though that would be a good idea. Rather, what is needed are the softer command-and-control incentives that come from putting collaboration into context and making it part of a specific process: Here's the task we need to collaborate on, here's a template for how to collaborate and here's a sensible workflow to make sure we're all aligned with our collaborative tasks.
So a collaborative process like a new product introduction would follow a standard operating procedure that determines who from development, manufacturing, sales and marketing should participate. It would include a set of links to a wiki or document repository and a workflow that would orchestrate their efforts through the product launch.
Adding social collaboration to business processes shows users how to collaborate and why it has value. The two fundamental concepts missing in social collaboration tools -- how to do it and why it's important -- move front and center.
Putting machines into the equation broadens the effort's context and extends business processes -- since collaboration will be part of machine intelligence. Human-machine collaboration works well in areas like asset maintenance and field service, where increasingly intelligent machines -- turbines, pumps, extractors, robots -- can communicate in real time across a network. A maintenance worker, parts procurement specialist or even someone in customer support can "follow" a given set of physical assets using enterprise social networking technology -- much like people do on Twitter -- and let the gadgets communicate among themselves when they need replacement or repair. The worker then uses the software to kick off the remediation effort and enlist other people, or machines, as needed.
With context and process now part of the equation, and with machine collaboration providing a compelling use, the prospects for social collaboration in the enterprise are improving. It may still seem more Utopian than utilitarian, but at the very least it's come a long way from its Field of Dreams origins. And it's about time.