October 20, 2008

Social Media Undercover

Since social media tools became impossible to ignore on the internet, knowledge management folks have been worried about how to introduce something "social" behind the firewall. Most are beginning to realize that it takes an unusual senior manager to understand the value of creating strong communities within the enterprise. To be fair, many managers do get the value of strong teams within specific units or departments, but try asking them to transplant that success to a more macro level and they get lost.

So what should a conscientious knowledge manager do when they realize that social media tools are exactly what their enterprise needs?

Jack Vinson suggested recently that the best approach was simply to stop calling these tools "social" and focus on specific real world uses such as "inferred" expertise, real-time status indicators, easy-to-use file sharing, etc. And then, in a response to comments to his post, he wrote: "Our friend Mary would jump... It's NOT the tools."

Our friend Mary. That would be me.

And, Jack was right. I'm jumping.

We should just give up on finding a label for these tools. The decision-makers within our organizations don't care what these tools are called as long as they work. If you want to avoid a losing argument, removing "social" from "networking" doesn't help as much as you might hope. From a decision-maker's perspective, networking (social or not) is something you do to land your next job. Now tell me, why would a manager who is not in lay-off mode want to spend corporate resources assisting you with that? As for building social or business networks within the enterprise, many managers view that as a "nice to have" rather than a "need to have."

So what's the better strategy? Jack pointed to it in his response. Here's the fuller quotation:
Our friend Mary would jump... It's NOT the tools. Maybe this is one of the other problems with calling it social networking - that sounds like a tool looking for an application.

In my ideas above, I was attempting to suggest problems or issues that business people might actually be interesting in solving, rather than specific tools.

Jack is right -- focus on the problems or issues that decision-makers are interested in solving rather than specific tools. As I wrote in an earlier post, don't fall into the trap of finding business problems to justify purchasing the tool -- look for established business processes that people know should be improved. And then deploy the tool knowing that it will have a much greater impact because of its secret "social" weapon: by building community, these tools facilitate and expedite information sharing.

Yet, there is a caveat here that needs to be raised: We know there are lots of processes that could be improved by social media tools. However, most business managers don't care. Unless they are charged with squeezing every last of ounce of productivity out of each process, they tend to focus on the squeaky wheel. Therefore, you should too. Find a good way to fix that squeak and the manager will provide the grease (i.e., cash) -- even if it's for purchasing a web 2.0 tool. And, you won't even have to beg.

Again, the key here is to focus on processes that, from a business perspective, must or should be improved. Not could be improved. When your solution lines up neatly with the decision-maker's problem, you've reached the sweet spot. And, in that sweet spot, even social media tools are welcome.

So listen to your users. They don't have the time or energy to listen to you tell them all the ways you think you can help them via social networking. All they want is a simple solution to their pressing problem. And, if that solution happens to be fun and easy to use, that's all the better.

As Mary would say: It's NOT the tools!

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