Enterprise Social Computing (ESC) starts to emerge

This article was originally published in VSJ, which is now part of Developer Fusion.
Advocates seem to suggest that a revolution will occur when technologies such as blogs, wikis, mashups and popular social networks are used, with traditional hierarchical structures being overturned as the new facilities set the workforce free.

This has mainly reflected a lazy attempt to simply translate what works in consumer social computing into the enterprise world, as epitomized by so-called ‘Enterprise 2.0’ – simply bringing Web 2.0 technology into the workplace. But, social computing actually does offer real value within the enterprise, and fortunately this value supports and enhances, rather than revolutionizes and undermines, the rational organizational and control structures that exist in enterprises today.

This application of the principles of social software to the enterprise is being called ‘enterprise social computing’ (ESC). Unlike Enterprise 2.0, ESC is not just about importing the technology, but is about developing a considered methodology and toolset around web 2.0 concepts to deliver real and sustainable business value. Although the initial driver for ESC was for improved collaboration opportunities between teams, its scope has widened at an extraordinary rate. In a sense this is not surprising, since most business processes consist of two distinct areas of operation – actions, often IT-based, and interactions at the human level. While much attention has been paid to the former, the latter has rarely been significantly formalized but instead tends to be done on an ad hoc basis by individuals trying to decide on the right actions to take to do their job. The impact of this asymmetric approach has had major implications in terms of cost and return of IT investment, as the lack of support for the human dimension has hampered the potential benefit of the IT process. Using social computing tools, not only can these personal interactions be made easier and more widespread, but intelligence about this part of the process can be recorded, with the potential for dramatic benefits.

To date, the only tools companies have had to improve social integration and related procedures in the workplace have been somewhat haphazard and one-off in nature. These might include best practices training, mentoring programs or targeted, management backed studies into working practices and efficiency. While these programs have delivered some benefit, the situation is a far cry from one in which continual procedural efficiency improvements are possible in a repeatable fashion. Note that workflow software is not the answer, since it is all about process integration, rather than the social integration, and therefore hardly touches the key issues.

It is still early days, but the promised advantages of ESC are substantial and highly attractive. Obviously, at a general level ESC does indeed offer opportunities to collaborate more effectively. As an early form of social computing, wikis are an easily accessible and updatable way to build up a store of valuable business-related information, particularly on such things as working practices, project management and how to get round specific problems, and they have the by-product that IT support costs are considerably less than required to provide intranet support to this less technically aware audience. Another important advantage is that ESC can remove the need to send around large email attachments, containing project plans and updates for example, with implications for version control, network load and storage overheads. Instead, this information can be stored in a collaboration environment, and emails can point to it. Even calendar management can be improved through use of social networking technology.

But perhaps the most exciting area of benefit is the application of the ESC approach to the refinement, streamlining and improvement of processes, procedures and working practices. This closely relates to the ability of social computing to do two things:

  • Allow those most knowledgeable to define and organize information
  • Make it easy for those who need access to this information to find it easily
Anyone skilled in process management will know that if a process can be tracked and understood, then it can be measured and improved. Therefore, if a company can understand a little more about how employees are solving their day-to-day work-related problems, it should become possible to establish best practices or carry out training to improve employee performance. The traditional approach to solving this problem is to engage an external business process re-engineering expert. However, these experts are both expensive and disruptive. In many cases, the best practice expertise is already there – it is just that it is un-communicated, locked in the heads of one or more expert employees.

Consider, for example, a department where there is one highly experienced claims handler, and a number of more junior ones. On receipt of a claim to be addressed, the expert might consult a few web pages to find any recent history in this area, go and talk to a couple of different departments in the company such as finance and legal and then write up her proposal for resolution of the claim. Imagine if these tasks were in some sense tracked – perhaps the web pages accessed were tagged, and the discussions with the internal departments were held across an intranet-based forum or recorded and tagged in a Wiki . The junior members of the department would now be able to access this information, enabling them to learn how the expert handled things, what questions were asked and what answers were given, and the details of the response. This could prove an invaluable way to provide a level of on-the-job training to raise their own skill levels. In fact, it is not too much of a stretch to see that the capturing of such expertise and knowledge could also facilitate business process optimization – the approaches taken across multiple individuals could be captured and analyzed to identify common problems or good behaviours. Similarly, the same method could be used to capture approaches to problem handling, information which is often hard to gather because it is by nature occasional and diverse.

This example may seem trivial, but a little thought will show that the potential of ESC can be truly innovative and deliver real business value. Expect to see a surge of activity in 2008 about this new way to drive value from IT investment.

Steve Craggs is a director of Lustratus.

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