The IT manager's guide to social computing

Behind the firewall

So much social computing depends on people giving freely. Their reasons may be selfish (I want to be known as an expert on x) but they post articles, snippets and links to stuff they find interesting and their visitors benefit too.

Some people consider themselves too busy, but social computing offers time-saving opportunities which might, just might, persuade them to participate. Some people are conditioned to be consumers, rather than suppliers, of information. For the best results in the social computing world, give is as important as take.

If a particular wiki page, a blogger or a forum is of interest to you, then you can usually pick up its RSS or Atom feed. You are then only ‘pinged’ when something changes on the page of interest. Some email programs can ‘aggregate’ these feeds, some people prefer to use a purpose-built aggregator. In any event, you no longer have to visit pages in case they’ve changed. You will be tipped off.

You can search the social computing datastores by keyword search, Google style, but you will know from this that the results are not always quite what you hoped for. Having said that, keyword search is already more popular than navigating intranets by menus or the indexes compiled by the web team.

Tagging, that is adding keywords to the material you create, provides a quick way for people to see that the terms are an important element of what you’ve posted. Better than this, though, is the ability of visitors to pages to add their own tags. These lead to the emergence of a folksonomy. This is something like a taxonomy but far less rigid and more likely contain the sort of terms that users prefer.

You can then look for information by its tags and see who else is using the same tags and find out more about them. Depending on how diligently tagging is adopted, it is possible to divine a huge amount about a user’s interests, as well as finding other material which they like and which might, therefore, interest you. This downside of tagging is that you might reveal more about yourself than you intended.

Adoption rates

Social computing technologies are intended to be easy to learn and use. Just as the PC took off inside the organisation with the arrival of the spreadsheet, and email took off with the arrival of the @, so social computing is expected to take off with the advent of easy-to-use tools.

Socialtext, for example, is a business wiki/blog software provider which (astonishingly, some might say) introduced WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) editing earlier this year. Adoption rates at client Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW) immediately soared.

It pays to approach social software implementation carefully. It requires senior management commitment. Even in the labs examples mentioned earlier, the projects had board level support, even though IT wasn’t involved in the early stages. At DrKW up to an hour was set aside to run people through the basics.

The general idea has to be to show support from the top, to fill the initial wikis and blogs with interesting stuff to make users curious. They are then encouraged to participate and are praised when they do. Criticism needs to be handled very carefully in the early stages. As more people participate, the greater the value of the network and the more benefits will flow from the exchange of information. It does seem, though, that after the initial seeding and the visible participation and support of management, users need to feel that it is their system and nurture it according to their own requirements.

The claimed benefits, especially for wikis, are that collaborative projects are accelerated, emails are hugely reduced, innovation happens through serendipitous connections, unnecessary barriers are broken down and the risks posed by leaving staff are reduced because their contributions remain.

IT can play a significant role in terms of providing a secure computing platform and taking care of backups. It can implement the software as web services or use external hosts. Either way, IT’s job would be to facilitate then get out of the way. This is not meant unkindly, but the management part relates primarily to providing the tools, the communication capability and the hardware. It may extend to exchanging information feeds and links between existing and new systems.

The systems described are typically low cost, yet they bring practical and highly valued capabilities to knowledge workers. Some IT departments have realised that these new tools can help users act as a surrogate helpdesk, dramatically cutting the cost of IT support as users help each other out for free. ®

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