I know, we are now in 2013, and announcing anything for a past date falls short from being a prediction. But as we are struggling to help organizations transform to adapt to uncertainty, I often find myself thinking that we already did that and went there before, when considering where social business is heading to. Whether on the technological or on the conceptual side, much buzz is made which takes us back from the future. There are many reasons for that, the simplest one being the necessity to survive in present industrial logic while setting the basis to allow businesses to thrive in a wirearchy. New technologies and emergent behaviors must make their way into our dominant top-down, production-based, model before being able to give birth to a model well-suited to complexity and to a knowledge-based era. Yet, most of the trends which shape the social business landscape seem to pull us back into a “déjà vu” draped in new clothes, like a jay dressed in peacock feather. Predicting sometimes looks like diving deeper into a dull past… This article will deal with the technological aspect of this shilly-shallying, while I will consider the conceptual side in another post.
As I began collecting ideas for this post, Bertrand Duperrin published an interesting article, in which he classifies the main approaches taken by vendors to reconcile emergent social technologies with post-industrial business applications and environment: they either chose to “socialize business tools or bring business back in social networks”. In both cases, integration is the name of the (new) game, a game which promises to “unlock creativity everywhere” (IBM Connections), or to “continuously meet both business execution objectives and to delight the end customer” (SAP Jam).
In the midst of this marketing brilliance stands the key purpose of workplace collaboration: enabling better and faster problem solving, by facilitating access to knowledge, resources and expertise throughout organizations and beyond their boundaries, in order to foster better decision making.
The rise of the virtual assembly line
By making an activity stream the backbone of how work is done, whether in business applications or through personal interactions, “social” is tying us to a single place. Of course, the purpose of these activity streams isn’t to have us stare at a screen all day long, as a key success factor of this approach is to teach people how to dig what is important to them and to filter out non important information. Yet the fact remains: actionable activity streams bind people online in a single, unified environment. We are somehow inventing the virtual assembly line, neglecting the necessity for diversity and heterogeneous environments to support the divergent thinking needed when making complex decisions and that a certain level of distraction leverage creativity.
In On Organizational Becoming: Rethinking Organizational Change, Haridimos Tsoukas and Robert Chia have shown that, even without being fully conscious of it, organizations are constantly transforming themselves. One of the major changes we witnessed in the last decade is the restoration of the task-orientation of the way we organize time, orientation that prevailed in traditional societies and linked all personal activities together, and which was replaced by a clock-time orientation during the industrial revolution, as Lewis Mumford noted in 1934. This change alone has deep repercussions on our life, as work can no longer be considered as a “special” occupation disconnected from the rest of our activities.
In this context, the convergence of enterprise social technologies with services available on the public web and their associated behaviors is logical and inevitable. Activity streams wouldn’t have taken off with such strength without Twitter, and Wikis excepted, most of the tools composing enterprise social platforms first appeared on the consumer web. Yet, it seems vendors are looking back to the future… As we just begin to successfully convince executives that social tools aren’t just “Facebook for the enterprise”, focusing on actionable activity streams, and putting all tasks at reach from inside a unified environment, spring sadly from the same paradigm: Facebook again, the sticky place where everything is supposed to happen and which you never quit. People do not live in Facebook, why should they work like they did?
Consumers’ web and behaviors draw a very different picture of emergent technology usage than the one of a global activity timeline. In a recent study, Google has discovered that more than 90% of internet users are multi-screening, either sequentially or simultaneously, on a daily basis. Similarly, a research from Microsoft showed that mobile users (excluding iPhone users) use an average of 10 different applications on their smartphone. As Larry Hawes noted, on a comment to a recent post from Sameer Patel, “Another big facilitator of the change you are advocating for is mobile. Why? Because it gives us a clean slate from both technology and behavioral perspectives. We can use that blank canvas to design computing experiences that allow us to seamlessly combine the transactional, communication and collaboration aspects of work”. In that sense, global activity streams are artifacts from an industrial past. What we need is true interoperability and diversity, not homogeneity and integration. We need to be able to work on different devices, chosen according to the context and our own mood, devices populated with straightforward apps which will not carry more information than we need at the time, while allowing us to bridge this information across time, space and context as needed. These apps won’t be a responsive replication of full-fledged integrated platforms, but their functionalities and design instead will fully fit the behaviors associated with the device that will embark them.
The future in past tense
Departing from the activity stream paradigm, some vendors, historically involved in business applications, like Salesforce or more recently SAP, have chosen the other way around, and aim at introducing collaboration around business objects. Discussing about a document right where he lives, or seeking for help inside a community to solve a customer problem, are powerful and promising cases for collaboration. Yet, the applications and processes around which conversation happens were designed for the industrial age, and collaboration in such a context is somehow like giving a crutch to a paralyzed man. Moreover, as uncertainty and complexity urge us to reinvent most of our assumptions about business, from leadership to business models, collaboration is too important to be left to business as it exists today, to paraphrase Clemenceau.
In fact, the future of collaboration exists, our customers and employees are already taking fully advantage of it in their daily life. It is time for enterprise technology to embrace it to enhance business efficiency in new work models, not to enhance workers efficiency in outdated business models. Let the past rest in peace.
This post first appeared on collaborativeinnovation.org