The Scope of the Social Enterprise

Greetings from IBM Lotusphere and IBM Connect 2012. Conferences such as this one are great for getting the total picture of a market. The problem with the social enterprise picture is that it is so vast and expansive that it can be confusing and overwhelming. It's a bit like when you were a child and your parents took you to a toy store. There, arrayed right in front of you, were so many good things that you didn't know where to look first. What is clear from Lotusphere is that social enterprise is like that. It encompasses so many elements that it can be hard to decide where to start. Social portal? Integrated social communications? A rich directory experience or video collaboration? Is it best to start with socially enabled applications? It's mind boggling.

My main takeaway from Lotusphere is that social enterprise technology will dramatically change the way we do business. This amalgamation of new technologies and business processes, many being pushed into the enterprise from the consumer space by younger workers, is transforming the way we communicate. Old ways of interacting within and between organizations are being replaced with new ways of communicating derived from public social networks. I would not be the least surprised if e-mail as we know it disappeared, becoming an intercompany transport method.

There were some very exciting trends on display at this conference. A few that really caught my eye were:

  • Millennials change everything - As the younger generation of 20-somethings enter the workforce, they bring with them certain expectations. They expect a rich communications experience. They expect mobility and device choice. They expect that the social networking environment that they grew up with will translate into the workplace. They are creating the same pressure to transform the way we do business as previous generations did with the World Wide Web and e-mail. I see a lot of companies really grappling with how to accommodate these newer workers without alienating older ones. It also requires a shift in the mindset of managers who may not be as comfortable with social tools themselves.
  • Social portals - This is a situation where love-hate is a common theme. The idea of all of your communications, especially social communications, compiled in one place is enticing. The idea that no matter what form of communication I choose - IM, e-mail, Chat, Micro-messaging/Micro-blogging, Video, application sharing, file sharing - having it all together in an organized portal is attractive to people constantly having to switch their attention from one context to another. The products rarely live up to the promise. It's almost always the case that you still have to switch from application to application to use your social tools. IBM's collection of tools comes pretty close to the promise and seems to be getting closer. There is still the problem with connecting into your applications but at least the tools are there to do it.
  • Socially enabled applications - Over and over, the IT professionals here have said the same thing - We must socially enable our applications or no one will adopt the social enterprise. Enterprise applications such as CRM, project management, ERP, Human Resources, etc. need to have social tools as part of the normal workflow or they have limited appeal. No one wants to stop what they are doing to use a social tool. The tools should enhance processes not become a process unto themselves. Access to these tools from within enterprise applications enhance the application and allow for capture of key decisions information and knowledge.
  • Collaboration through video, file, and application sharing - many collaboration tools, especially video collaboration, were based on a simple formula - ROI was achieved by reducing travel costs. Given the difficulties and costs of implementing these sharing technologies, that was tough to realize. Two things have changed that are altering the collaboration equation. The first is the cost of implementation. There are now many inexpensive services that allow for collaboration to be purchased for very low cost with some of them available for free for basic features. This is enabled by cloud computing and peer-to-peer technology. Second, this same technology change is allowing real-time sharing to be implemented very easily. In some cases, all it takes is a sign-on to a web site to get going. The technology is still not perfect. Video technology especially can be hampered by low bandwidth and poor camera quality. Still, it is leaps above where it was just five years ago. This is causing a shift from the travel cost ROI model to one based on productivity. The emphasis is on making teams of workers, many geographically separated from each other, work smarter and better and eventually cheaper.
  • The Soft Economics of Social Enterprise - the biggest theme that is permeating Lotusphere is the soft economics of social enterprise. Everyone believes that social tools allow them to do business better but no one can really prove it in quantitative manner. One term I heard several times was "soft ROI." My feeling is that social enterprise is so big, so expansive, and so transformative that it is too complex for most ROI models. This creates a barrier to adoption since IT has a harder time selling these tools - and their costs - into their organizations.

Social enterprise is changing how we do business. It's driven by a new generation who grew up on Facebook and Twitter and who intrinsically understand the value of human interactions through social tools. Business understands this value in theory but struggles in practice. They know it is inevitable that all enterprises will become social enterprises but struggle to fit it into the way they do business today. As more social tools become integrated into everyday processes, companies will have an opportunity to remake how they do business, both within their organizations and with their customers.

Topics: Enterprise Mobility