Social Software: What Works for Business, What Doesn't
How can enterprises successfully employ social software practices inspired by Facebook, such as following, liking and content streams?
By Tony Ventrice, Badgeville
The future of the workplace has been re-imagined in the image of Facebook. More software for the workplace is becoming "social" and, if your job involves a computer, you’ve probably already experienced this new breed of software inspired by social networks. Offerings like Slack, Jive, Sharepoint, Socialtext, Confluence, Chatter, tibbr, Asana and others are changing the way work gets done.
But is all this "social" right for work? What succeeds for Facebook doesn’t necessarily succeed for work. Before we throw out the old in favor of the new, we should first ask:
What does the workplace stand to gain, and lose, from the rise of social software?
To make this assessment, we need to understand what exactly makes software "social." While each offering is unique, the elements that make them social tend to focus on three features:
- Content streams
In Facebook, most following comes in the form of bi-directional connections. You follow your friends and they follow you. Following a person means the content they generate is added to your stream. In business software, most following takes place in a one-dimensional form; the user chooses a topic, group, space or project to follow and receives updates as developments occur in that space.
What is it replacing? We’ll get to the content streams in a moment, but looking at just the following aspect, we’re talking about a new way of curating communication. In the past, the things you knew largely depended on which meeting invites and email groups you were on.
Positives: Anyone who’s ever been at a big company can tell you how crippling a culture of meetings can be. A fear of missing an important discussion could sentence you to sitting through hours of irrelevant meetings. Moving away from meetings to streams offers a potentially huge improvement in workplace efficiency. With opt-in and opt-out control, employees can quickly connect with and browse the content they find most relevant.
Negatives: "Following" puts the burden on the employee to curate his or her own content. By taking managers out of the loop, everyone gains precious time back, but not every employee is responsible enough to curate their own involvement. Less supervision can quickly turn into less productivity in the wrong situations.
The bottom line: Following is only appropriate for the aspects of your business you trust your employees to self-curate.
In Facebook, all of your incoming content is thrown into a single stream. In the business world, content is generally divided by topic. While streams can cover the entire company they can also be created for individual teams, initiatives, task forces and projects. Content can be general or cover specific focuses like idea generation, knowledge share, Q&A, project updates, document management and more.
What is it replacing? In many cases, content streams replace email threads. The chief difference is context. Email brings together all of your communication streams (from various topics) to a central location, while content streams bring together all of your content relating to a particular topic to a central location. Each has an advantage.
Positives: In a traditional office software environment, you might get a message via email and then have to go somewhere else to find a related document, and somewhere else to ping a coworker for a quick clarification. From the perspective of a single project, content streams are an improvement; all three things can be done in the same place. Content streams can also provide a timeline that tells a cohesive story of a project’s progress.
Negatives: Email is still a better pure communication tool. Need to create a side conversation? Just write a new email to only the relevant people. Need people to know about an update as soon as it comes in? Better make sure to email them because they might not check the content stream soon enough. Until a social platform earns fully ubiquitous adoption in an organization, email is the default form of communication. In addition, vendors like IBM and Microsoft are introducing features designed to make email more useful.
Perhaps the worst feature of content streams is their reliance on user consistency. Email conversations naturally fade away. Content streams require curation.
Did someone create a redundant stream? Congratulations, you now have a split conversation that won’t go away until someone merges them. Is the whole project in a single stream? Congratulations, until somebody takes it upon themself to divide it up, everyone gets to sift through the noise of a half dozen conversations. Did someone divide it up incorrectly? Too bad. Companies rarely have guidelines in place on how to organize content streams.
The bottom line: Content streams require monitoring. While they’re an improvement over meetings, they’re usually inferior to simple emailing. When it comes to conversations, content streams tend to bring more clutter than they’re worth, filling up with rapid-fire back and forth. Consider using content streams for posting files and project announcements but not for day-to-day communication.
On Facebook, "likes" provide an element of interaction to the otherwise passive act of consuming content. Read something you approve of? "Like" it. Something make you smile? "Like" it. Liking adds a sense of agency into parts of our world where we otherwise have no influence.
On Facebook, a like has a limited lifespan. Other than a sense of pride for the poster, it doesn’t matter if one cute kitty picture gets 30 likes and the other gets none; five days later, nobody even remembers.
In the workplace, likes come under a variety of names ("like," "vote," "choose as best answer") and can provide a valuable content tagging system. Likes identify quality content for later reference. Likes can even be used to measure and recognize which employees are contributing most productively to the community.
What is it replacing? In most cases, likes are a completely new addition to the workplace.
Positives: Likes provide a potentially valuable layer of data. When done right, this layer of data can improve business functions by sorting content by quality. It can identify top performers for recognition. The call to interact with developments from around the company can also keep employees engaged in the business as a whole, potentially preventing the tunnel vision that sets in when employees put their nose down and grind out their work for extended periods.
Negatives: The likes system in Facebook is specifically designed to create an endless loop of consumption behavior. Facebook users aren’t getting anything productive done while they click through their feed. While your workplace content stream probably isn’t as plentiful as a Facebook stream, and hours of compulsive clicking are unlikely, it’s still a possibility you should recognize and monitor to ensure it does not occur.
The bottom line: Try to limit your employees to liking relevant content. If you’ve managed your streams well (see above), this should come naturally. You don’t need or want your employees liking conversations or debates. You want to keep the likes limited to files, articles and notable events.
As the workplace changes, the opportunities for increased efficiency provide exciting potential. But like any new development, we need to understand the tools before we wield them.
Tony Ventrice is a veteran game designer with a career of applying game-design techniques to emerging markets. His successful, award-winning designs have taken him to industry leaders and innovators including Smule, Zynga, Playdom and Badgeville, the leading gamification platform, where he is director of Game Systems Design.