Watch worker activity to predict software demands

If you listen to the Web 2.0 or Enterprise 2.0 evangelists, you’d think that the IT world as we know it is about to come to an end, to be replaced by systems run according to the demands of the so-called Generation-Y who are entering the workplace. If you listen to the propeller heads, you’ll be advised to install a mixed bunch of best-of-breed collaboration solutions that will transform your business prospects at a stroke. Except they won’t. Effort and thought are required.

It’s easy for people whose lives are totally wrapped up in social computing and the like to think that collaboration is the be-all and end-all of corporate life. It promises to weld staff, suppliers and customers to each other in mutually enriching ways. These enthusiasts forget that, while very important, online collaboration is only part of business life. Just how big a part depends on the nature of the company. A firm comprised principally of ’knowledge workers’ is more likely to embrace this stuff than, say, a steel mill.

While the collaborative aspects of this (relatively) new software hold all manner of promise, some lessons need to be learned from their adoption ’in the wild’. We are fortunate that the world at large has been willing to act as an experimental laboratory on our behalf. We have witnessed the advent of all manner of technologies: instant messaging, forums, chat rooms, blogging, wikis, tag clouds, virtual worlds, and so on. And you can be sure that companies like IBM and Microsoft have been watching like hawks and determining which approaches best suit their own strategies.

For the rest of us, R. Todd Stephens has produced a good template of how Web 2.0 and social computing fits into the organisation. As the senior technical architect of collaboration and online services at AT&T, his document is a pretty authoritative reference point for people trying to get their heads round the subject. It doesn’t really look much beyond the firewall, at providing value to customers, for example. So, given that this is what organisations generally exist to do, you might want to extend the chart in this direction.

For a large company, IBM is unusual. It has encouraged its employees to participate fully in social computing activities both inside and beyond the firewall. In its first nine months, over 30,000 employees opted in to Beehive – an internal Facebook equivalent. It’s a safe place for people to reveal more of themselves than they would on a public community site. In a company where much of the work is done collaboratively by people who’ve never met in the flesh, it helps to strengthen the bonds between them. At least, that’s the theory.

No-one is obliged to participate in the company’s many social computing activities, but guidelines are provided for social computing and virtual worlds and employees are trusted to abide by them. You’ll find that trust is a key factor when deciding your own organisation’s social software strategy. IBM’s guidelines have been refined over the past couple of years and act as a fine template if you’re considering such a move.

It is interesting to contrast IBM with Microsoft. In some ways, IBM is the more adventurous of the two. Through its Lotus Software operation, it is out there pushing hard for social computing. Microsoft appears to be taking a less pioneering approach. Looking back at the company’s past behaviour, this is not at all untypical. From BASIC, through MS/PCDOS, Windows, Spreadsheets, Internet Explorer and, now, social computing, Microsoft has let others make the running before jumping aboard. And, though it often makes a mess of things at first, sheer perseverance sees it through.

To contrast the companies, I’d like to introduce Toby Moores who runs an ideas company called SleepyDog and is a visiting professor at the Institute of Creative Technology . He’s had a number of big commercial successes and has a good grip on the creative process. His theories of how some ideas turn out to be hits and other misses are explained in a recent video which seems to fit the social computing/Web 2.0 scenario rather well.

He talks of population curves. These are the potential markets for a new product or service. In this instance we’re talking about CIOs and the like in largeish organisations. They are ultimately responsible for the IT strategy and its fit with the organisation. At the other end, you have the people who work in the organisation, especially those who are agitating for the introduction of social software. Imagine both sets as bell curves more or less separated, like a Bactrian camel’s humps, depending on the nature of the organisation.

Now add a halo around each bell – in Moore’s terms, this is the ’Cool Curve’. Inside the halo is where ideas really take off, usually at the leading edge. Ideas that land outside the halo are strange and scary while those that land inside the bell are old and boring. It’s easy to see why the employee advocates for social software are so keen, because their experiences outside work fit well within their personal Cool Curve. But, since the CIO’s Cool Curve is likely to be quite separate, the ideas that appeal so much to the enthusiasts completely miss the CIO’s curve. So much so, that they barely merit serious attention.

The curves, by the way, are continually moving so that ideas that miss today might hit the mark tomorrow. Microsoft, whether by accident or design, manages to insert itself right inside the leading edge of the CIO’s Cool Curve. It offers evolution, not revolution. It builds on what’s gone before (I’m thinking SharePoint), but doesn’t go the whole Web 2.0 hog. However, if the past is anything to go by, it will eventually embrace all the elements which stand the test of time.

As with all things computing, it’s highly likely that the social stuff will enter your organisation. Something similar happened a long time ago with personal computers and spreadsheets – they crept in to departments because they helped accountants do their work better. Macintoshes crept in because they helped make printed documents look pretty. It’s important that you keep an eye on the grass roots activity and be prepared to offer software, support and services, as soon as you’re persuaded of the genuine business benefits.

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