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Can emulating social media make business applications more productive?

Can social technologies be turned to account for business applications, and can they boost economic productivity?

People spend huge amounts of their free time on social networks, whether Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram, but the creativity and energy they expend there is not commonly used in their working lives.

Why is that? What is the potential of social networking technology in business applications, whether using social networks or enhancing business applications with capabilities characteristic of them?

Slack, a team collaboration tool launched in 2013, has come up in a few interviews Computer Weekly has done with Silicon Valley executives this year. The late Dave Goldberg, then CEO at Survey Monkey, and Emil Eifrem, CEO at Neo Technology, mentioned it.

However, collaboration between work colleagues is one of those things that involves IT but is not about the technology as such. It takes us back to the heyday of knowledge management at the end of the 1990s, which proved to be collateral damage in the dot com boom and bust. Along with the "new economy" and the "knowledge economy", it was consigned to the recycling bin of history – and it has been recycled.

You could say knowledge management technologies were not mature enough to deliver the vision of organisations functioning as collective brains, collaborating inside and outside the enterprise. You could also say we do now have the technologies to deliver on the promises of knowledge management.

There is a host of cloud-based collaborative enterprise technologies that have been inspired by social media. These include Yammer – which may become yet more productive allied with Microsoft 365 – but also that mature old warhorse, SharePoint, as well as social technologies from business application suppliers such as SAP (with Jam), Infor (with Ming.le), Chatter (with Salesforce), and so on.

Email probably remains the default collaborative technology in the form of "reply to all", but the newer social technologies are taking root in corporate organisations. At Computer Weekly, for instance, staff have begun using Box, and are moving away from shared drives.

And yet collaboration is more a cultural than a technological matter. Crucially, is it not just about sharing, but about making a common culture.

Social technologies and economic productivity

A 2012 McKinsey report into how social technologies can stoke economic productivity failed to capture business's imagination as much as its 2011 report on big data did. But it still made interesting reading. 

For more about social technologies and enterprise IT

  • How social technology has evolved as a model for enterprise IT.
  • What is enterprise collaboration?
  • A CIO guide to enterprise collaborative technologies and social media.

It calculated that in four selected vertical industries, $900bn to $1.3tn of economic value could be opened up by the corporate leveraging of social technology. Much of that was attributed to the hypothesis that about a quarter of knowledge worker productivity was disappearing into the dark pools of older IT, specifically email.

The McKinsey Global Institute report pinpointed a paradox that counts against it: while social technologies are the most rapidly adopted in human history – it took 38 years for radio to hit 50 million users, 13 years for television and nine months for Twitter – corporate adoption has been comparatively slow. 

There are probably good reasons for this. Business IT, especially in large organisations, is necessarily more conservative than the consumer IT unleashed by Silicon Valley in recent years. Security, governance and control are vital to businesses and organisations that have to take shareholders and other stakeholders into consideration. 

Moreover, business processes are subject to the discipline of metrics: they belong to the realm of productivity, not (just) play.

Users left cold by traditional enterprise software

These days, enterprise software suppliers are persistently confronted with the problem of lack of user adoption of the full panoply of the powers they offer. This can only get worse as more and more so-called millennials or digital natives enter the workforce and climb the ranks inside companies and organisations. 

Such workers have never known a world without mobile phones and the web, especially in its more recent, almost mono-cultural phase of Facebook and Google dominance. It is often said they will not tolerate clunky software that is visually unappealing.

SAP’s answer to this is its “run simple” mantra, which is about increasing user adoption as bureaucratic complexity is (or should be) stripped out of corporate organisations. The Fiori line of business apps is the new face it wants to present to knowledge workers.

But what success are traditional enterprise software companies likely to enjoy with the embedding of social technologies? It does feel like a clash of cultures.

Computer Weekly put this question to the late Dave Goldberg earlier this year. He predicted that we will see more applications in the enterprise taking advantage of the “dynamics that have been created by social media”. But he did not see Twitter or Facebook moving into the enterprise. 

He observed that Yammer and, especially, Slack have been successful serendipitously. Both were born by accident, out of necessity. Yammer was an internal development tool for an online genealogy company that did not work out, and Slack came out of a gaming company that did not take off, again born as a development tool.

However, Goldberg did not think social technologies will have an impact on CRM, financial or HR systems of record, whose deployment will always be decided at a senior corporate level.

Eifrem made a similar point about Slack, which has taken off in the Valley because it is “practitioner led”, he said. Eifrem bemoaned “tools that look great on PowerPoint when presented to the CIO, but don't actually work out well when they get into the hands of the people who use them every day”.

This would suggest that successful collaboration tools are much more likely to be born and flourish inside a particular working culture than to be seeded from above by an enterprise software supplier. In other words, they are more likely to come out of work that is, and has to be, done in common, rather than from software that abstractly emulates Facebook and Twitter.

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