Social Tech Made Easy Makes for Soft Social

When we want to improve our health, we often have to make small, difficult choices like climbing the stairs rather than taking the elevator. Similarly, if we want to improve our organizations we need to make small, difficult choices like starting a debate, engaging the strangers within other departments, and being critically honest.

Enterprise Social could do better by doing less. In an effort to make social tech more like public social tools, vendors have actually made the tools less social by making them easier and familiar. Yes, ease of use is positive as it is all about adoption but adoption is the vendor’s end game, it can’t be the goal of organization. For example by simply “liking” or adding a GIF or emoji as a comment, we end the potential for conversation before it can really start. This is fine outside the organization as people flit from post to post in Facebook, yet how many times have you seen anyone there ask “I see you liked my comment. Why?” Maybe it was obvious but maybe not. And similarly when we choose to hold critical discussions in private groups, groups typically formed around function or departments, we cripple the opportunity for diverse opinions and ideas – those things that truly advance organizations.

Given the dismal state of employee satisfaction/ engagement today, should the goal of social tech be only to help get work done or do we want to have it help us challenge how and what work gets done?

If you want to make things better the next time you have something to share or something to add, remember that although the elevator is available, you can and should take the stairs.

But It Won’t Scale

Chat platforms like Slack are still the darling social tool of startups. A former colleague of mine working in a small, geographically dispersed startup noted “I can’t imagine work with out it.” The criticism of chat platforms however is that they won’t scale if a company of 20 becomes one of 200. Functionally speaking, this is probably correct. It’s a team tool and typically as an organization grows teams divide and functional groups and departments form. If Slack remains, it’s a get work done tool, not a cross company communication, learning, large-scale collaborating, innovation tool; a tool to help the company remain agile.

However to start by identifying its shortcomings and labeling Chat platforms as the wrong solution long term is missing a huge point. What can scale, because of its use, is attitudes about social tech and it’s value to an organization. A small group is the nucleus of a growing organization and chat platforms help make social activity a part of the company’s day-to-day, not apart from it. This is something that’s very difficult to grasp in large enterprises that try desperately to plug in an ESN after living on email for decades – here, social is perceived as a separate activity from work and it’s typically a long slog to get the tech adopted let alone help adapt or even alter their work.

In today’s chat tool leveraging startups and small enterprises I suspect cultural DNA is being rewired for greater social, so even if chat platform like Slack don’t scale, the attitudes, the belief and the value of social will.

Technology will fade, ideas rarely do.

Strengthening Our Social Supporting Muscles

I hurt my shoulder swimming (yes, you can get hurt swimming). Apparently I have a labrum abrasions (see picture) causing me to have painful movement, too painful to swim. Surgery on my shoulder is an option but may be unnecessary. So physical therapy has been my course of action and as I’ve learned it’s not my shoulder joint that needs to be fixed, rather it’s the small, little known muscle system around the shoulder that were too weak all along. This weakness caused me to alter my swim stroke and thus damage my shoulder. So of course this got me to thinking…

Approaches to performance improvement efforts are similarly surgical in nature. We directly attack the problem itself. But when the performance issue is say less tangible, like improving organization communication (collaboration, cooperation, openness, or transparency), we initially target individual or group behaviors and begin working on the people directly.

Typically it goes like this:

– We need to be more agile, adaptable, innovative…

– We need to collaborate more, open up and be more transparent

– Let’s buy Yammer… or Slack… or Jive. Or

– Let’s “create” a CoP so people will talk and share and innovate more… or

– Let’s revisit our knowledge management approach… or

– Let’s have the c-suite blog more… or

This approach is a mistake. At worst it is an expensive, morale killing failure and at best it is so slow it stumbles on for months or years with weak support.

Communication, collaboration, cooperation, etc. in the organization, like my shoulder, are really supported by little, unseen systems:

– Who gets to talk to whom and when?
– What gets rewarded and recognized?
– Is management leadership or overseer?

Just think, if I have surgery on my shoulder but return to swimming with the same underdeveloped system (muscles) that supports the movement (shoulder), it remains weak and I will eventually fail again.

Similarly, if we just implement a new technology or target individual/group behavior change and the system that supports the new behavior remains unchanged (weak) the new behavior too will eventually fail again.

Address the system which will alter the behavior and change the culture.

Simple Doesn’t Mean Easy

Over that last few months a local workshop for non-profits has been gathering weekly. Around 80 people from various organizations are involved. The hosts invited everyone early on to join Slack to apparently be leveraged between live sessions and carry on the dialog (I say apparently as this was not actually articulated).

After several weeks, 10 people have posted once… each. Three of the 10 were the hosts. It’s a ghost town. Go figure.

This isn’t really about Slack though…but it is. You see, Slack is often chosen because it’s free and it’s supposed to be simple and fun. It’s the gold standard for chat today. Every start-up is running to it – the “email killer”. But that doesn’t make it right for everyone or every situation and simple and fun doesn’t equate to adoption, that my friends is a people issue. But an even bigger problem than this group failing to connect with Slack is that many will walk away blaming the tool.

The reaction by this group is inevitably one of Slack is stupid. And for many that’s it, the social soup is spoiled. Wrong tool, wrong reason (if any reason), poor planning, poor implementation, and poor support. Bolting it on and flicking the switch works for very little with the exception of an electric light. Many will leave this half-baked effort viewing all enterprise social tools and efforts as pointless voids and frustrating time wastes. So next time the opportunity arises, it will likely be met with a “oh yeah, we tried social media. It didn’t work” response, making sincere efforts all the more difficult due to the often impenetrable wall of first impressions.

This is ultimately a failure of expectation, or a failure because there was an expectation that connection, conversation and collaboration are easy because you’ve employed simple technology.  Thanks to all who leap before they look…

Just because the tools are getting simpler to use, more natural, and common place and even with a lot of fun buzz and hype – it doesn’t mean it’s going to “work” out of the box. It is still and always will be people and purpose, trust and not technology that drives the social engine.

The Long Tailers of Social Business

Social business talk hasn’t progressed much beyond what it is or how it’s done. Jon Husband noted this in a brilliant and succinct post back in 2013 where he said that “most of the conversation circulating and re-cycling regarding [social business] … what ‘social business’ is and/or is not, how to do it right, or in 7 easy steps, or with pizzazz and ROI and why it’s changing everything (or nothing at all)

What has changed however in the past 2 years is that the idea of Social Business, like Social Media, has been further positioned by large firm Marketing and Advertising departments as their charge. Markets are conversations so says the ClueTrain Manifesto and so shortsighted marketing and sales have moved to “Social Business” strategies which mostly just employing social technology with the same push information tactics.

Social LongtailHowever where social sincerely exists are those businesses on the long tail . Organizations here, the smaller more niche players, are more often inherently, unconsciously and positively social inside and out. Their business survival is predicated on a meritocracy over hierarchy, openness, trust, feedback and transparency – it’s here where the soil is most fertile.

Social Business, (what we do) can’t survive long without firm roots in a Social Organization (who we are).

For the larger, market dominating organizations, they turn to social technology (like any other technology) to fix problems vs. prevent them. Inside these organizations social tools are applied in a futile effort to open communication for knowledge sharing, a cure for their social atrophy. However the best opportunity for social technology inside has passed, the arteries are now clogged by competition, policy, procedures and rigid hierarchy.

Social technology may be best as preventative medicine vs. the miracle cure.

It’s the Long Tailers that need to understand this and move quickly to stay who they are. But to stay small as they grow larger, technology alone won’t be enough – social requires people and a holistic approach. They should also employ a Change Prevention strategy (vs. Change Management), maybe a new internal role of an Unchanging Officer to help leaders see their culture today and the big picture potential of social tools beyond communication and knowledge sharing. A well crafted change prevention strategy can anchor their progressive culture and help maintain the healthy status quo.

It’s far too easy for long tail business leaders to fall into established, yet floundering, 20th century practices as they grow. There are still many visible, seductive monuments of this past success and misguided social business approaches.

Long Tailers must act now for there is much to lose if they don’t change.