The IT manager's guide to social computing
Behind the firewall
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.
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.
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. ®