Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Here's why social business will not save your cheese

If you're reading this article then I guess you have a keen interest in social business or are perhaps already running your own setup. If my guess is true, then you perhaps have some frustrations running your internal program. Now don't get me wrong, I am a big, die hard fan of social media in the workplace and frankly I wouldn't have it any other way. That being said, I am mindful that social business is still quite a new space with just about 5 years in the mainstream. While public social media has reached a really ubiquitous state in our personal lives, it's no secret that social media in the workplace is big jump in thinking for several knowledge workers. I think social business technology itself needs to grow several levels in maturity. In today's blogpost I want to talk about a few things that'll define the future of social business and perhaps its eventual ubiquitous position in the enterprise.

Composite identities vs Corporate identities

People are just people. They don't have a corporate identity and a separate personal identity. They are who they are; they blog externally and perhaps blog internally too. If they're passionate about what they do, perhaps what they blog externally is about the work they do for the company. They are on twitter and they're perhaps sharing interesting stuff. People's activity on public and private networks are two sides of a composite social identity. I think of it as Identity 2.0 - enterprise systems seem to present themselves as a new network in a vacuum. The assumption seems to be that the enterprise network exists by itself as a prima-donna platform. The truth is that it doesn't - until the activity stream of the enterprise social network can include elements from both sides of the individual's social contributions, it will continue to miss out on the prolific contributors from the public web.

Simple extensibility vs Painful upgrades

Think big, start small and iterate. It's a mantra that works for startups and I believe it should work for social business too. Whether we like it or not, we live in an age of consumerisation of IT. Regardless of how good our internal systems are, people have access to better stuff in the outside world. Things move so fast that it's tough to keep up. Heck, it was only recently that Google announced its intent to get into the social space in a big way and hey, we already have Google Plus doing the rounds. Think of how often Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and the others are adding features. It's quite tough to keep up as your people start taking these enhancements for granted and start expecting them in enterprise systems. The truth is that not many enterprise 2.0 platforms are built to evolve. Extensions are a mess, upgrades are a pain. Vendors need to understand that customers will need to move fast. Seamless upgrades, the ability to receive enhancements automatically, the power to develop extensions and an extensions API that stays backward compatible are all crucial requirements that vendors need to respond to.

Frictionless participation vs Enterprise security

IT teams across the world may think otherwise, but most people actually do care for security. At the end of the day the least risk is that their personal data gets compromised and really no one is likely to be happy with that. Having said that, I guess there's no doubt that enterprise security can be more a deterrent than anything else. Take a step back - think about how you access Facebook. You perhaps have an icon on your smartphone, which when you tap, you go right into your news feed. It's the same for Twitter, Foursquare and whichever social app you like. As a contrast you perhaps have to go through a thick wall of two factor security before you break into your intranet! Now no one's saying we don't understand the rationale, but the fact is that thick security blankets are often a deterrent to contribution. We can be blind to this and say things are the way they are, or understand that the shape of the digital world is changing. People will continue to look at their enterprise social media experience as substandard to their 'regular' networks as long as we don't get creative about solving this problem. There's perhaps some middle ground - we just need to find it.

Mobile first vs Mobile as an afterthought

Mobility is big for me. In fact for most ThoughtWorkers who are at client sites, mobile access is really big deal. Smartphones and tablets put together already have a much greater penetration than laptops and desktops. It's a no brainer - mobile access makes your social network ubiquitous. And yet, several enterprise 2.0 vendors have a mobile strategy only as an afterthought. Heck, Jive now has a decent mobile strategy, but until recently their iPhone app hadn't had an update for over a year! Guess what, there's a mobile app for every public social media platform. There's several consumption mechanisms on the mobile -Flipboard and Zite being notable examples. What's there for our enterprise systems?

Change management support vs Cookie-cutter consulting

Last but not the least, I want to throw in a few words about change management. For most organisations, moving to a social business platforms is a strategic yet tough journey. We all know it's not enough to build and hope they'll all participate. Most organisations have no clue of how to go forward with this stuff and make it thrive. Enterprise 2.0 vendors will pepper you with case studies and whitepapers in the sales journey and will have cookie cutter advice for you before you go live. What's notably absent in most offerings is post go-live change management support. Most problems don't surface before go live. They come up when the dust has settled. If vendors don't have this kind of support as part of their offering, then they're selling the enterprise short. Remember, it's about the technology, but it's more about the people and a new way of working.

My post today has been a bit of a rant based on my own experiences. I love the way the world is taking to enterprise social software. I hope that if we can push organisations and vendors to think ahead and innovate around the themes I've mentioned, social business could cross the chasm between edgy technology and business as usual tools. The power of technology is when we can take it for granted - I'd love to hear what else you think could be steps for social business to mature and become a common theme in most organisations. Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Risk Management isn't about being a 'Deer in the Headlights'

Image Credit - T Hall
I recently came across that picture on Flickr and I thought it could be a nice title shot for my post today. As a company that values Entrepreneuralism, you'd assume that ThoughtWorks would be a fast moving, risk embracing mean machine. In more cases than one, that's absolutely true. In some less than ideal situations we do end up freezing up in the face of risk - much like deer in the headlights. The only difference is that deer eventually move on, but we often get stuck worrying about risk. Why does it happen at ThoughtWorks? Well, we're human after all - and frankly it's commonplace to fear possible loss than embrace possible gain. You've perhaps already read about in the 9x endowment effect and the sunk cost fallacy. Now don't get me wrong, I don't believe in being a cowboy - risk management is a crucial project management skill. I find extreme risk averseness however to be a deterrent in moving a project forward at a motoring pace. It hurts innovation, and obsessing over risks takes away a lot of energy and momentum from real, productive work. At the end of the day, risk management isn't a deliverable - real work is. Risk management is only a tool to facilitate work. I don't claim to be a great project manager, but I do have some thoughts I want to share with you today, about risk management.

You don't know how big it is

Last week we had a challenge. We needed to close out a legacy knowledge repository in view of the fact that we have new social business platform in place. As a team, we wanted to give the company 30 days before we archived the old system. Now for any medium or large sized company this brings about a set of risks. What if we lose data? What if we upset people? What if people need help and we can't support them? Are all these risks real? They probably are. How big are they however? We don't know. Now we can either freeze up and do nothing or ask ourselves - what's the minimum we need to know to move ahead.

Here's what we did. To check whether we'd lose data, I tried out an experiment on a test domain. Turns out that you lose no data whatsoever, you can turn the service back on and retrieve data whenever you need to. A quick, dirty experiment is often all you need to gauge the impact and mitigation for a specific risk. For the other two risks, no matter what we analysed, we would only be conjecturing as to how big the risks were. We've made the announcement and ever since, less than 15 people have reached out to us - most for tips to migrate their data, some for thorough guidance and just three who wanted us to actually assist the migration. Turns out, that no one really was hugely fussed about the move. In the worst case, if when we do shut down the service someone comes back saying they were on vacation and completely missed our warning, we can pop the service back on a weekend and help the individual move over. Risks addressed, we move ahead.

All risks are not equal

Risks are these little mystery balls. Some have a large impact, others have a negligible effect. Some might have a high likelihood and others are highly unlikely. Your plan is really conditional on how you evaluate these risks. The key in my view is not to over evaluate. In my world, risks have three parameters - the likelihood, the impact and the mitigation plan if the risk does manifest itself. The key however is to not over analyse. If the impact is low and the likelihood is bleak, then do you really want to spend all the time in the world analysing what you will do about it? The cost of analysing the risk far outweighs the cost having to respond to it without a pre-defined mitigation strategy. On the other hand, if it's a high impact, highly likely risk, then you want to do what you can to avoid it and not even have to get to the point of mitigation. The key is to look at likelihood and impact as a balance with mitigation strategy. From that point, it's about incremental changes, iterating and moving fast. Keeping everyone aware of how you percieve the risks just ensures that everyone knows what to do when you move ahead. Finally, risk management is conjecture - the key is make this systematic conjecture than just pure obsession. Also, sometimes it's important to just know what you can do and what your options are. The moment to act may not be until much later - Chris Matts calls this the last responsible moment.

You may ask why a blog on learning and social business has a post on risk management. I think it's a crucial competence when dealing with change and managing projects. Also, it's not as complicated as we'll often make it out be. I hope this short post helps you see my perspective on why I like to be pragmatic about risks and why I like to keep pushing forward with projects I am on. Not to say that I don't have things blowing up in my face - I've had an experience of that last week! That said, I would take that any day as long as I have the ability to respond quickly and to keep the pace of innovation high. I think that's a fair trade-off. What do you think?

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Customising your Social Business platform - 5 things to keep in mind

Most social business platforms are maturing quite fast. The landscape now has players that have been around for a while and provide functionality that'll put some consumer apps to shame. That being said, often times the stock platform isn't 'exactly' what you want. You may need to customise the platform to get the most out of it for your company. While this is quite common in the enterprise, it's also a big opportunity for you to destroy every chance of success that you can potentially have. We've done a significant amount of custom development on our internal social business platform, myThoughtWorks and our successes and failures have led me to a few lessons that I want to share with you in today's blogpost.

Find a stakeholder who understands social business

Social business is new and isn't necessarily compliant with the traditional notions of knowledge sharing, learning and internal communications. And let's face it, you're unlikely to have a free rein to build whatever you want to. If these two realities have to combine to a happy end then you need a stakeholder who understands social business. Easier said than done, I know but if you have to succeed then your business stakeholders need to be speaking the same language as you. Talk to Dinesh Tantri and Nikhil Nulkar and they'll tell you that the most successful enterprise 2.0 implementations they've seen involve stakeholders who were really passionate about the potential of social media in the enterprise. Sometimes we're not as lucky to have supporters of that nature. In that case, we need to do the best we can to educate our stakeholders on the potential of social business. Starting work with some common ground and common vocabulary can do a world of good.

Evaluate well, understand your priorities

Social business may not be the most mature practice around but the technology is advancing quite fast. Companies like Jive, Yammer, SocialCast and others pride themselves on the user experience they've crafted and the approaches they profess. Now of course some platforms have a lot of features and others don't. This is where a thorough evaluation comes in. Look at your budget, look at your needs and find the platform that's a closest match. Now the key is to honour that match. Social business suites build their platforms the way they do for a reason. A lot of them have had a lot of success selling their tools. You could easily start rigging your platform to be 'exactly' how you want it to be, but there's tremendous value in running a near vanilla install with just your company's branding on it. This is not to say that customisation is not important - you just need to hold your horses. See how people use the defaults, understand them well. There's no point extending a platform without fully understanding its existing potential. While you take the suite through its paces, prioritise what you really need to build. In fact, I daresay that in the initial months any customisation that's likely to drive engagement trumps what you would consider 'business requirements'. Frankly, if people aren't going to use the platform enough, the fancy business requirement means nothing.

User feedback trumps imaginary requirements

If you're building for users, then you need user feedback. You're not trying to release the next big thing in the market. Remember, people use tools such as these almost everyday in real life. So there's nothing sillier than to try and build stuff off your own wild imagination. That kind of thing may be necessary once you have the right level of engagement, but surely not upfront. Speak to users, seek their feedback. Understand their problems, help them find solutions within the system first. Check if it's only a clash of mental models. If it isn't then find out what's the bare minimum customisation that could possibly work. The key here is to make small, iterative improvements, to put changes into production and then to let real, informed use to drive improvements. If people aren't using it, then it's perhaps a case for you to look at usability first than to build new requirements. By churning out new functionality on a broken user experience, you'll drive users away faster than you can imagine. It's tempting I know, but resist the temptation to over engineer requirements - simplicity is the greatest sophistication.

Keep the experience consistent

I'll let you in on a dirty little secret about enterprise 2.0 platforms. They're so flexible that you can run them the way you like. You can create the cool, corporate equivalent of your favourite social media platform or you can build out a crap, 1990s style intranet. Now I don't know about you, but I'm hoping that somewhere in your firm you want to run social media like social media. And if that's the bulk of your usage then you don't want to saddle it with legacy style requirements. It's confusing for your users, it's a nightmare to manage. Not evident upfront, but I can tell you this from experience. This is a consulting challenge for most internal social business consultants, but I realise that this requires long term influence and stakeholder education. Again, you can choose to run new systems the old way or exploit them to the hilt by encouraging new business behaviours.

Innovate fast - appreciate the consumerisation of IT

If I had to add one last piece of advice to today's post, I'll say this. Everyone knows what social media looks like and how it works on the big, broad, internet. To tell you the truth, we see the latest and greatest sooner than we see it in the enterprise. Think of user experiences for example. You can access Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Google Apps by just tapping an icon on your phone. No login required whatsoever, once you've enabled credential storage. How do you logon to your intranet? You perhaps have to key in a cryptic passcode. Think of Flipboard for the iPad - it's a magazine interface for all your social media intake. It's just perfect for 'keeping up'. In comparision, even a leading enterprise provider like Jive Software hasn't updated their iPhone app for over a year! With the recent announcement of iCloud, even email and calendaring as well will be heaps better than anything the enterprise offers. You could take every use case and people have access to better tools than you're providing them from the enterprise. The key is to focus your customisations on bridging the gap between personal and enterprise tools. How can we reduce the entry barrier? How can we help people's information intake? How can we increase engagement? These are key questions for us to answer.
So, are you extending your social business platform? If you are, I'd love to hear how your experience has been. Do my musings strike a chord with you? Do you have suggestions for other blog readers? Let me know. Next week, watch this space for some more of my thoughts about social business adoption and maturity.
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