Finding the best metaphor for social business software

Posted by Pan Tan on October 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm.

We are all suckers for memes and metaphors. A great metaphor helps us instantly grasp a difficult concept, rolls easily off the tongue, and encourages us to share the idea with others. Metaphors are invaluable in our world of software, where we need to convey technical concepts to an audience which is not tech savvy. Here are some efforts to find the best metaphor for social collaboration, the big thing in information technology today.

Structured vs. Unstructured Collaboration

One metaphor we often use, is “structured vs. unstructured collaboration”, which leaves various prospective customers, partners and analysts with the enlightened ”I get it” smile. Traditional collaboration tools, with their structure of workspaces, folders, and project hierarchies are a reflection of the traditional mechanistic organizational structure with pyramidal management levels, business divisions, departments and offices. Social tools on the other hand, will have none of this keeping people apart. They encourage anyone across the organization to connect with anyone else, and talk and share away to glory. The underlying belief – this “unstructured” and informal environment will not result in recipes being exchanged, but real value for the organization where people will spontaneously share their skills and experience.

However, this conceptualization is not without detractors. First, even amongst the early enthusiasts of social business, there is an increasing consensus that this free exchange of knowledge needs to be conducted on a template of processes. How else would a company be able to track and measure the value created? How else would managers nudge effort towards business goals?

It might even be a stretch to say that social tools introduce “unstructured” collaboration. Email achieved exactly the same, where anyone could in-fact bypass organizational structures and processes, and reach out to anyone else in the organization to ask a question (Hey Joe…), share a document (please find attached..), or seek help (help!). In fact, email could achieve most of what social tools can do – cross organizational communication, and the ability to monitor activity (you could always subscribe to documents and projects and get email notifications). However, social tools by virtue of their design, are vastly more efficient, and importantly, they encourage transparency. By default, people can see what others are talking about, unless conversations are explicitly set as “private”. Social tools are therefore more enablers of unstructured collaboration than inventing it.

Conversations before Content

My personal favorite metaphor of what social tools really do to collaboration is to put “conversations before content”. It’s now not so much about the content stored in the collaboration environment (documents, projects, contacts) but the conversations that happen around this content (I changed the structure of the document because.., I don’t agree with the second para because..). So two people in different divisions can easily start a discussion via social messages, and pull content into the conversation when appropriate (say a document). Although content might be the end product of a collaborative effort, the real meat of collaboration is in these discussions which social tools so effectively capture.

Again, it’s not as if people didn’t talk before the advent of social tools. These conversations still happened, through email, IM, phone calls, or in person. But only the end product of these conversations, content, was captured in the collaboration environment, while the conversations around it were either scattered or forever lost. Or in other words, context was lost. Social tools capture content AND context. Which makes me think, even “from content to context” is a good metaphor.

What is your favorite metaphor for social collaboration?

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