Wasting time on the social intranet!

“Where do we draw the line? At what point are we becoming too social and therefore non-productive?”

This question was posted today on my board in our internal social intranet, in a discussion on the level of social presence by people with an ambition to present themselves as social business consultants. I guess you've heard it before, or similar questions implying that social equals non-productive and can only be tolerated in limited doses. “Social media and social intranets are a waste of time”

Last time your talkative friend phoned you and talked with you for a little less than an hour about nothing, did you blame the phone? Or maybe your friend? Or maybe yourself for not being able to cut them short?

Or the last time the neighbour caught you just outside your door and kept you busy listening to their complaints about the other neighbour's pet?

Chatterboxes waste our time if we let them. Whatever the medium and context.

I use our social intranet to communicate:

  • I ask and answer questions openly, to maximize the possibility of additional contributions as well as re-use of answers in the future by others with the same issue
  • I share knowledge and experience so others can build on mine instead of starting from scratch
  • I reuse knowledge and experience from others for the same reason
  • I scan the flow of updates on boards, blogs, wikis, bookmarks, activities to maximize the potential of stumbling over inspiration or discovering knowledge I didn't even know I could benefit from
  • I collaborate in communities and activities (task management) with efficiency and with the time zones, reducing the need for us to work off hours just because the people involved happen to be on another continent

Wasting time? Rather working efficiently and maybe investing some time for the good of both my colleagues and myself.

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Collaboration contexts

Sometimes conversations on collaboration can get a bit confused. Often because you aren’t talking about the same thing, but without realizing. The concept of collaboration means different things to different people… and at different times. It’s a matter of context.

I find it useful to think (and explain) a bit extra about the context of collaboration when discussing with others, but also on my own when analyzing behaviours and observations.

The three typical contexts presented here have provided an excellent basis for me (I know it’s no rocket science, but it has proven useful often enough for me to want to share).

Collaboration Contexts: Individuals collaborating, Collaboration in communities, Task-oriented teams

Usually, I apply this model when talking about intranets, but I think it works pretty well also in public networks.

Many tools and features are used in all contexts, but in different ways and with variations of intensity and – definitely – for different purposes.

Teams with a goal

Teams with a goal are typically in need of a project space of some kind. A couple of characteristics:

  • Limited external visibility of the project space if any at all
  • Non-homogenous membership profile. Members are selected based on complementary competences and characteristics
  • An end in sight. When the goal is reached, the project space is no longer needed (except as a repository for reference if need be)
  • Greater need for and use of tools for task management
  • Easily understandable business rationale

As this context has long been the easiest to understand and assign monetary value, web support was available early, also on a commercial online basis.

Individuals sharing interests as individuals

The obvious examples of individuals sharing interests as individuals are all public: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. People who have something in common  (socially, business or interest) connect, keep in contact and share information on a “free-for-all” basis: “Here’s my update/picture/link. Come and get it if you’re interested.” Conceptually, the purest example in my book is Delicious, where I share my bookmarks publicly for anyone to find and use, with no strings attached whatsoever. Some characteristics:

  • Openness
  • Heterogeneous
  • One-to-any communication
  • Ad-hoc and serendipitous
  • Difficult-to-explain business benefits

While this type of collaboration has seen unparalleled success the latest decade in the public arena, it has had greater difficulties to make the same headway within companies and organizations. Quite understandably so, too, at least as long as you think conventionally; structure, purpose, process, measurability, cause-and-effect. In many cases, the public sites for individual collaboration may even have had a negative effect on internal acceptance. “I don’t want to introduce something for my employees to waste their time internally on socializing as they do already on Facebook”.

But those of us who have had the opportunity to use rich and comprehensive social intranets are very aware that they pay off. It’s just so darned difficult to present their value in a way that the conventionally minded understand.

Individuals banding together in communities of interest

In comparison with the Teams with a goal-scenario, Communities are:

  • Openly visible – although joining may be limited
  • Homogenous – people join out of a common interest
  • Longer lasting – as long as they stay vital
  • Focus on sharing knowledge, not on task management
  • Greater difficulties in measuring business value

Most of the time, it’s easier to measure the business value of employees being able to form internal voluntary communities of interest across borders and distances, be they geographical or organizational. Project managers sharing lessons learned, asking each other for help, sharing useful links, collaborating on describing best practices in wikis etc or programmers, or people working for a particular client, a customer segment or in a particular area of technology or…

But there is an increase of communities of interest also in the public domain; groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, by hashtags on Twitter etc. For companies who do not offer similar possibilities internally, I think these public communities represent a major risk of leakage of intellectual property.

So, next time the arguments of your discussion partner seem not to make sense, take a step back and spend some time on understanding if you talk about collaboration in the same contexts or in different.

Did Steve Jobs worry about ROI?

What did the ROI calculation for the iPhone development look like? For the iPad? Or for iPod?

I never met Steve Jobs. I never worked at Apple. Still, based on what I’ve read about him I doubt that there ever was an ROI calculation for the investments made in any of Apple’s and Steve Jobs’ breakthrough innovations. He believed and he dared. His compass knew it was the right thing to do.
Yet he was the most acclaimed business innovator in the past decade.

Next time I’m asked about the ROI of social intranets I will counter with this question: Would Steve Jobs have bothered calculating it?
I hope it will go down better than my current standard question of: when did you last see an ROI calculation for implementing SAP?

Comparing the investment needed to unchain the potential of the company staff with making an investment in production equipment that can produce faster or more efficiently is nothing short of an insult to the people working for you.

Innovations can be classified into two categories: Enabling or Improving. Either they make something possible that was not before – like the automobile once made it possible to travel long distances fast and with a flexible route. Or something currently possible to do easier, more efficient or with better quality – like more fuel efficient cars, safer cars or innovative service programmes. Improvement innovations are suitable for ROI-calculations, enabling are not.

So, if you allow the social intranet-train pass you by and wonder:

  • why all talented people work for the competition
  • why your customers keep telling you that your competition are faster at getting up to speed and at solving problems
  • why people keep working in silos
  • why you keep reinventing the wheel
  • why your competition is more innovative than you are
  • why customers tell you that you’re old fashioned

– then go back to your archive, pull out that ROI-calculation run it through the shredder and realize that inspiration, collaboration and staff commitment is not to be reduced to numbers.

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