Social computing & the Enterprise

December 9, 2007

My podcast with Jon Husband on social computing continues to have a high take up, including six commentaries from Luis Suarez which start here and conclude here. Luis is also a Mac convert who works for IBM and his reflections on sitting in a room of Thinkpads is entertaining and educational. Reading the various links while working on the next release of SenseMaker™ (due in the new year with a Facebook application amongst other good things) got me thinking about some of the differences and similarities between social computing in general, and in an enterprise environment.

One of the nice things about the blogosphere is that when you are thinking about a subject, someone pops up with a post on the same or a related issue which helps shape your thoughts. In this case Euan questioning how people will cope when Facebook dies (in effect making the point that social computing environments are subject to the cycles of fashion) and Nick Carr commenting on a debate between Michael Krigsman and Robert Scoble. Krigsman argues (against Scoble) that the context of the enterprise is business focused, non-sexy and focused on function with a zero tolerance for failure. Carr thinks that this is a false dichotomy and cites Amazon as a commercial application which is easy to use in the manner of social computing but also provides consistency and confidentiality of data.

Now this is a very complex issue and there seems to be an increasing danger of either/or conversations prevailing over both/and, a common feature of discussions in which sufficient regard is not payed to the role of context. I want to make a brief contribution to this question, but plan to do so over several posts. I will start with five observations:

  • There is a clear need to realise that there is a difference between a large number of voluntary actors within a system and one with a more limited set of actors within a structure of purpose. Amazon is a commercial system, which also seeks to use aspects of social computing through things like the recommendation system. Now speaking personally I find this feature a pain, partly because it requires too much maintenance (I also use Amazon to buy video games as guilt presents for Huw while traveling). At the same time I do find the buy this book with another feature useful. Many aspects of tools such as Facebook work because of the sheer number of people engaged.
  • Systems with large number of people also tolerate loss of key players within limits. If some people choose not to use it, then in the wider scheme of things it doesn’t matter. In a corporation failure of a fairly small number of people, even in a large organisation can destroy a system. Of course if too many people loose patience with a social computing tool, and alternatives emerge then the position can change rapidly. This is the essence of Euan’s key point about fashion.
  • The social computing space is a complex ecology, whereas the organisation is to a degree a closed system. This creates differences, but they are not at the level of the Carr debate. Reliability, ease of use etc. are universals. The more important point is the question of responsibility and accountability. In a large organisation, particularly Government there are significant consequences for failure in many systems, as well as more generic issues of data security. I have learnt a lot (much of which I did not want to know) about my 18 year old daughter since she made me a Facebook friend. In a corporate environment that would present problems.
  • There is little interface between the formal and informal within a social environment, however in an organisation this is more problematic. Both are interdependent, and co-evolutionary in nature. An organisation will need aspects of their work incapsulated and structured in enterprise wide systems (such as SAP), those systems will in turn be dependent on interaction with informal and semi-formal collaborative and other systems for which a social computing environment is more appropriate. Boundaries create interesting evolutionary developments that can radically change the context of use and therefore the emergent properties of the system as a whole.
  • An organisation has, by definition an organising purpose or reference base to which various actions, investments and conversations can be directed and focused. In a sense social computing is a chaotic system (unconstrained agents) while the enterprise is a mixture of order (system constrains agents) and complex (loose system constraint on agents and agents constrain system). Yes I know this is a bit simplistic, and social computing is also complex, but let the simplification ride for the moment. This means there are differences between the dynamics of cause and effect and substantial issues on questions of Governance which have to be addressed in an enterprise environment.

So that is a starting point, some of the solutions are reflected in the above mentioned podcast, but its a bigger subject. I will return to this later in the week, moving from reflecting to doing.

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