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The IT manager's guide to social computing

Behind the firewall

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Analysis If your company is averse to openness and transparency and is unlikely to change, then this article is not going to interest you much. Unless, of course, you are considering a change of direction.

The fact is that 'social computing' cannot be implemented without trust between employers and employed, between colleagues and between departments. It holds the potential to destroy hierarchies and demolish departmental silos. Paradoxically, it can also protect and strengthen these things, if this is what the company really wants.

So what is it and what makes it so dangerous, yet so seductive and powerful, especially to knowledge workers?

Think of social computing as a platform upon which people can collaborate in ad hoc groups, where they can share their expertise with others, possibly strangers, and where the by-products of their activities automatically add to the wealth of retained corporate knowledge.

Sounds like knowledge management doesn’t it? Well, it’s not. There’s none of the coercive aspects of that particular discipline. And, before you ask, it’s much more free-form and less centrally-directed than groupware. In fact, social computing is a curious mix of top-down initiation and bottom-up implementation.

Sometimes it arrives with the blessing of IT. Sometimes it arrives anyway, assuming the users can get hold of an IP address. (I know of two labs that were given IP addresses as part of their setup and each hj-jacked them for a major social computing implementation.) Users access all the software services through their browser, preferably one with tabs, so they can flick easily from one application to another.

Mixing the elements

The main software elements are wikis, blogs, RSS and tags. Other, more traditional elements like forums, directories and discussion boards may form part of the mix. Instant messaging and email are more communication channels, still used but not inherently social.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the terms, a wiki is a shared workspace. Ideally, the whole company can access it and benefit from the collected knowledge contained within it. Sometimes this isn’t possible and smaller scale private wikis with restricted membership can be created. Participants read, contribute, edit or remove what’s already there.

To take a simple example, an agenda could be proposed, participants notified - yes, maybe by email - and then the agenda evolved and embellished as each person adds their thoughts, corrections and attachments. Every time the agenda is saved, an archive record is made so nothing is lost and it’s easy to review the history or roll back in the event of an accident or ‘vandalism’.

Wikipedia is a good public example of a collaboratively authored work. It may or may not match Encyclopaedia Britannica for accuracy but my belief is that it will continue to get better, whereas Britannica is frozen until the next revision.

So, a wiki is iteratively improved by the work of formal or ad hoc teams. It accelerates the time to a result and harmonises the thinking of its participants. Contrast this with a blog. A blog provides a permanent record of the thoughts of an individual. Some might be playful but, in a business context, most will be setting out the expertise, knowledge and credentials of their authors. Some blogs allow the user to store reference pages as part of the blog just as some wikis provide a blogging capability.

Again, there are real-world parallels. Just type blog into Google and wait for the avalanche. Better, perhaps, visit Technorati and pop in a subject that interests you. You can filter what is returned by the degree of authority, this is measured by inbound links from other blogs. You’ll quickly see who is writing about your favourite topic and what they have to say. You may even feel compelled to comment on their blog yourself.

Now, this can happen inside an organisation. Imagine a global organisation and you are an individual wrestling with a problem. You could start by searching the blogs and wikis to see if anyone has already written about this kind of problem. You might prefer to post to the forum or, in the case of IBM, throw a plea out over its grouped instant messaging system to the people most likely to know the answer.

In this way, you not only get answers, often in minutes rather than the days associated with formal help desks, but you also start to form relationships with other people who share your interests.

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