Naturally, if nobody is visiting or posting content, and the platform feels like a virtual desert, something is very wrong. But having lots of activity there does not mean necessarily you are actually achieving any business value. If all conversations in your social intranet are Facebook-like (i.e., that familiar “what-is-up-not-much” kind of interactions), it may actually be removing business value by adding distraction to a work routine already overflowing with noise over signal. To better understand where the business value is, and to shape its usage to maximize that value, try to see your social platform as an internal Amazon site, but with a twist: instead of moving retail goods such as books and electronics, you are actually moving information. Yes, that’s right: your social platform is not “Facebook for the Enterprise”, but it’s rather the enabler of an efficient internal information marketplace.
Marketplaces in the real world are fascinating places to visit. From the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul to the Boqueria in Barcelona, there are no better places to visualize what transactions are in their essence. You can see in those places all the principles one would learn during an MBA degree playing live in your face: price elasticity, the 3 Cs, the 4 Ps, negotiation techniques, present value, future value, brand equity, you name it. That model evolved and was dressed with new clothes in the form of modern shopping malls and stock exchanges and online retailers, but the essence of it remains the same. It’s a perpetual game of supply and demand, where the consumers’ needs and the providers’ ability to match or surpass those needs are always changing towards an optimum balance.
Now think about your own organization. There’s an invisible marketplace there, where instead of fruits, or jewellery, or carpets, you have information being traded all the time. However, the way we trade or move that information today is reminiscent of prehistoric bartering practices. The “collective corporation” knows everything that’s needed to run its business, but that knowledge is fragmented in a million pieces.
Each individual in that ecosystem (employees, clients, business partners and competitors) owns only a very small subset of those pieces, and a vague idea about who has the other pieces of the puzzle. In most corporations today, if we have a question and don’t know who knows the answer, we’re stuck. In order to put those pieces together, we use brute force, as they may pretty much reside anywhere. We call meetings, use the phone, search our intranet or the Internet, send emails out, read manuals, in the hope to find and glue together disparate, atomic pieces of information scattered through the fabric of our organizational structure. We spend a lot of our working lives in meetings, or processing emails, or reading incomprehensible policies and procedures essentially because we are missing a catalyzer to make information flow more easily from where it resides to where it is needed. We are missing the network of synapses to enable the cohesive, comprehensive thinking necessary to make the best decisions we can in our jobs.
Social business platforms may be the fundamental piece missing in this framework. In their current incarnations, they are still very raw, and unable to bridge that gap completely, but you can already see how they are starting to unleash information from those disconnected pockets and move them more efficiently. Social business platforms should not be seen as replacements for subject matter experts, email, phone, meetings, SharePoint sites, network drives and intranets. They should be positioned as the network of highways that will link all those islands of information, by linking content to content, people to people, content to people and people to content.
Many of the social platforms commercially available right now suffer of an identity crisis: they want to be “Facebook for the enterprise”, but don’t want to look frivolous. They want to be all things for all needs, and just end up being offering uneven and incomplete solutions. Some of them allow lots of ways to capture knowledge, but have poor search capabilities. Others make very easy to create a network of contacts by mimicking the Facebook patterns, but give you nothing more than an infinite number of flat walls to digitize conversations, fragmenting the knowledge even further. Finally, some are advertised as the be-all and end-all solution for collaboration and communications, and sell the illusion that they will replace email, meetings, intranets, people or business processes. Well, good luck with that.
By understanding and fulfilling their role as enablers of efficient information marketplaces, social platforms can become as transformational to organizations as the introduction of currency, the development of trade routes, or advances in the forms of transportation were for the history of commerce. It’s a long journey, but definitely a worthwhile one.