Social Bookmarking – the Ugly Duckling of Collaboration

Blogging, Status Updates, Sharing Documents, Images and Film Clips, Pinning Pictures – all great things you can do using social tools, on the internet and sometimes also within the firewall on your intranet if you have the right employer.

One aspect of collaboration that is often overlooked is social bookmarking. To the extent even, that I feel compelled to explain the simple, yet appealing, logic behind it.

  1. Whether you use Favourites in Explorer or Bookmarks in Firefox or any of the other internet browsers, you only use them when you’re online. Right?
  2. As you only use them online, why not also save them online instead of in your local browser? Doing so may enable you to reach your bookmarks from any computer or even from your mobile device. Practical in any case, but especially when you make a hardware switch or have a crash.
  3. If you’re ok with saving them online, why not also share them with others while you’re at it. Particularly as it mean no extra effort for you.

I think we all agree that having knowledge yourself is great but becoming an increasingly impossible task with the volumes available and needed in modern society. Knowing where and how to find it has become a key quality. Expressing it differently: having knowledge at your fingertips comes in a close second to having it in your head.

Coupling that with the influence and reputation gained by sharing knowledge (or in this case – where to find it), social bookmarking becomes an obvious win-win activity. Maybe even win-win-win. You find stuff. Others find stuff. Your reputation grows.

On the internet, Delicious has been around for many years now. I have used it myself since 2004. Ownership has changed hands a couple of times and it is probably not all that easy to make money by providing the service, a probably explanation behind the apparent lack of attention to it and development of it over several years. But I greatly appreciate it although I think they could do much more with the iPhone app.

Google+’s +1’s (tricky to write, that one) wouldn’t require much additional features to become a serious competitor or even simply steamroll Delicious. Just promote it as a service in its own right, make it searchable and you’ve got it. I’m puzzled by why Google don’t.

Inside the firewall, the benefits and possibilities become even greater and more visible. As I work for IBM, I have the pleasure of being able to work with IBM Connections in my daily work life. As the primary business benefit of social bookmarking is ease of access to knowledge verified by peers, social bookmarking doesn’t face the same revenue challenges internally as it does externally. Also the benefits to the individual of the bookmarks not being machine specific benefits the company in case of crashes and hardware switches by reduced time waste.

In such a comprehensive collaboration environment as IBM Connections, social bookmarks become even more powerful. Have a look at the bookmarking dialogue below.

Social_bookmarks

As you can see, it doesn’t stop at me being able to bookmark publicly (default) or just for myself (option). I also get tagging suggestions; both recommended and used by others for this page but also, assuming that I tend to bookmark things related to favourite topics of mine, tags used recently by me for other bookmarks. Great time-savers and ways to establish de-facto standards, no?

As if that wasn’t enough, as I save my bookmark I can post that bookmark in a multitude of places: in communities I am a member of, in blogs and in any of my Activities (i.e. the in-built, light-weight task handling system that I have come to use to manage my entire work life). So, not only can I make my bookmark available for anyone who happens to search for something with those tags but I can promote it to communities, blogs and activities where I think people may be particularly interested in the topic at hand.

Topping it all up, internal social bookmarks can very well be used to improve the search function, usually a pain point of intranets. The search algorithm is supplemented by the preferences and categorization (tags, that is) made by people who have appreciated content.

And yes, of course, the social bookmarks in IBM Connections can be applied to content both inside and outside of the firewall.

There may be other social intranet systems available with social bookmarking, but I don’t know of any other, especially not with such comprehensive features.

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Folders is where knowledge goes to hide

I hate folders. I hate the typical folder structure of most operative systems. I waste time building the structure, I waste time thinking of where to store things. And when I try to find them again, I waste time again trying to remember in which folder I finally did put them and often have to resort to searching. And time is to valuable for me to waste and I guess that goes for most of you. I guess my structuring challenges are not unfamiliar to many readers too.

Thank you Google for Desktop Search!

And so far, this has only been about my own hard drive. Not in social websites.

This is why I get the chills every time someone asks for a possibility to create folder structures in collaborative environments. If a single person can’t sort out his own document storage and retrieval in a folder structure, how do they suppose that an unhierarchical, loosely knitted group of people will succeed? Rather, it would be as easy as finding stuff on someone else’s hard drive, don’t you think?

Enters tags. I love tags as much as I loathe folders.

Why I love tags? Because tags are defined by each user to fit their own needs and their own way of thinking, not the view of the few. Tags are flexible and quick to respond to new concepts and trends instead of representing old news. Finally, because tags can be used across all kinds of content (at least if you have a comprehensive collaboration ecosystem, like a good social intranet) thereby linking people with shared files with social bookmarks with blog entries with wikis with discussion forum posts with …. you get the drift. By searching on one tag, I can get a complete view of all the knowledge and expertise on that topic, irrespective of how it’s documented or who has it.

But, asks the fainthearted, aren’t you overwhelmed by masses of shared files or social bookmarks? There’s no structure! And I say: Filter by tags, my friend. And when you still have too many to choose from, filter further until you find what you look for. And if you still don’t find it through filtering, they are, unlike in folders, all visible and you can still scan them without having to open one folder after another, guessing your way down the structure.

For tags to work properly there are only a couple of prerequisites:

  • A good type-ahead feature when you are tagging – presenting already existing tags – plus people who have the patience to wait the split second needed for the type-ahead suggestions to appear
  • A uniform method of tagging across the collaborative system: either separated by space (multi-letter-expressions-need-to-be joined-by-hyphens-or_underscore) or comma separated
  • Users who understand the benefits of tagging and therefore do it
  • A decent feature for searching by tag

A couple of tagging hints:

  • When thinking of which tags to use, think of which words and expressions you would use when searching for what you are tagging
  • Use spelling versions, typically both American and British spelling, or else your item may only be found on one side of the Atlantic (if you’re using English, that is)
  • Language? I don’t have any strong view, but if the item you’re tagging isn’t in one of the “big languages” it’s probably a waste to use tags in any other language. People who find it won’t understand it anyway. Unless, of course, you are bilingual like me and you tag for yourself.

Finally, a good collaboration environment should be equipped with powerful search features (often turbo-powered by tags) and make extensive use of suggestions and associations to inspire you and make you discover useful stuff related to people you know or items you see.

So what’s so great about social intranets?

If there is one thing almost all intranets have in common, it is that people complain about them. The appreciation of traditional intranets generally is somewhere on a scale between neutral and abysmal.

If you ask employees who have access to social intranets, they would rather be somewhere on the scale between neutral and extatic (at least on occasions).

Communalities of most traditional intranets are:

  • Information is spread down- or outwards in the organization
  • Content is created by a cadre of communication professionals
  • The editors constantly debate structure and editor access
  • Users have difficulties to find their way in the structure
  • And just as much difficultyto find stuff when searching
  • Much of the content is out of date
  • An ever-present question for the company is “How do we make people use the intranet?”. (The response usually is to make it the default start page for all browser installations)

So what about social intranets?

  • Content is spread in all directions by the people who know the topics, not by the people who know how to write about them
  • The creators of collaborative content don’t care too much about the big structure. Only about the substance. And everybody have access to create content (but not everywhere, though)
  • Structure is secondary, since content is found through searching, and by association with similar content and with people you trust
  • Search works much better since it is based not only on search engine “mechanics” but is boosted by peer recommendations and social bookmarks
  • Social intranets apply “Content Darwinism”. Almost all presentation is based on “recency of updating”. Hot topics and communities therefore float to the surface while inactive communities and stuff people aren’t interested in slowly sinks to the bottom. (It can still be found through searching for it though)
  • As the intranet is seen as valuable and relevant, people will want to use it. There is no more need to make them go there.

Of course, it cannot be ALL social. The most powerful tool is blending the traditional with social. The communications folks may give some screen real estate away, but increased exposure of what remains is likely to compensate with a healthy margin for the lost real estate.

But, won’t the staff waste valuable time socializing via the intranet? No way! I’m constantly amazed by how the same kind of features result in such different uses on each side of the firewall. Or would you consider it a waste if:

  • people find experts to help them solve problems fast and with proven solutions
  • instead of re-inventing the wheel for the umpteenth time, people find documents from others that they can adapt to their current needs
  • employees band together in communities to share and build common knowledge on topics of professional and corporate value
  • knowledge is unlocked from employees hard drives, brains and desk drawers, shared and made available for the common good of the company… and for the future – an aspect to take into account in these days of retiring babyboomers and shortening average tenure
  • and – much needed in many a company – the ability of employees to network and communicate in all directions bridge geographic and organizational boundaries helping to overcome the frequent suboptimization stemming from organizational protectionism.
  • the criss-crossing of networks and communication generates chance meetings of people with other people or with unexpected information, a well known, proven and sought for environment for creativity and invention.

For me, it is very simple: the ability of implementing social intranets is the possibility for companies and organizations to show that “Our Employees are our Most Valuable Resource” weren’t just empty words.