Approaches to enterprise social software

An important article in the March 2005 issue of the Harvard Business Review suggests that organizations are approaching enterprise social software from three distinct value propositions, though we have so far only seen two of them “in the wild”.

One value proposition is encouraging disruptive innovation within the enterprise. This type of innovation typically happens in the organizational white space between functional units and departments. The challenge is to solve problems that have typically never been solved before, where the answer is not know, indeed the question is often not known, and to to that reliably and predictably.

We see this value proposition from banks, telecommunications firms, and all large corporates with changing product or service propositions.

The article in Harvard Business Review is titled A Practical Guide to Social Networks, and is written by Rob Cross with Jeanne Liedtka and Leigh Weiss.

In the article, they call this value proposition Customized Response and they argue that the appropriate HR practice is to develop and reward collaborative behavior, that key technologies include expertise locators and portals, and that the culture challenge includes establishing norms of generalized reciprocity.

We would largely agree on HT and culture, but on technology we would suggest wikis and enterprise RSS aggregators, as well as explicit expert resource locators. Our emphasis on connecting knowledge fragments is because when you don’t know the questions you can’t easily use an explicit system which will always be designed with the know questions in mind.

We wrote much more on this in our presentation Innovation Velocity and Social Software back in October 2004.

The other value proposition we are seeing is from firms who already do collaboration, but want to do it better. This is primarily professional services organizations like law firms and some banks where collaboration is what they do; it is their business.

But the way it is implemented is typically by e-mail and multiple versions of Word documents. That approach has the advantage that it works with the infrastructure of your clients and other parties in the transaction, but it does not scale.

What these organizations are looking for are solutions that will retain interoperability with external parties (which means e-mail for now) but which makes it easier and more reliable to assemble the components that make up the solution, whether these components are document fragments, specific domain expertise, research elements and case studies, or other elements.

The key technologies here are content or document management type solutions (but please don’t just buy a traditional document management system: it will not work for you!) integrated with employee directories and other tools for finding, creating, and maintaining reusable solution components.

The third value proposition in the article is called “Routine Response” and covers requirements from places like technical help-desks, call centers, claims processing, etc. Here the focus is on solving familiar problems with known responses.

We do not really see these much, perhaps because the focus on quality and consistency and on repeatable process means that enterprise social software is less of fit to the requirements and you are really looking for artificial intelligence solutions.

Our Value - People - Culture - Technology matrix for the three propositions is shown below and summarizes the main points made.

Disruptive innovationExtended collaborationRoutine knowledge
Value proposition Reliable spotting opportunities for connecting resources or processes in new value enhancing propositions; framing non-routine problems and delivering innovative solutions. Framing problems and delivering solutions from existing solution components; Efficient, reliable, consistent response to known problems
Key technologies Wiki, RSS, enterprise aggregation and search, folksonomies Content management, work flow and rules-based collaborative environments, e-mail integration, expert locators Workflow and work management systems, case-based reasoning and artificial intelligence
Culture Encourage collaboration across functional units and departments; establish norms of reciprocity Ensure roles have decision power; encourage shifting, flexible leadership functions depending on problem domain. Centralized decision management; quality focus
HR practices Develop, measure, and reward collaboration. Develop and reward for functional depth; develop specific skills for integrating functional roles and other solution components Develop and reward for specific tasks.

The article has a longer matrix and we disagree on some of the particulars but it is still extremely valuable.

In summary, there are at least two different approaches to enterprise social software with different value propositions, and they require different responses in terms of culture, human resource practices, and technology, as shown in the matrix above.