Social business apps' weakness: Being social

Facebook and Twitter are the wrong models to follow when deploying social business apps. Think this way instead

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For example, tools like Microsoft SharePoint and Box are often described as collaboration tools. They have some collaboration capabilities, but at heart they are document repository managers. Employees see the mismatch and use them for their real purpose -- or not at all. Don't get me wrong: Such tools are valuable, but as part of a collaboration environment that includes technology tools and human processes.

Furthermore, there's no single tool that handles all your collaboration and communications need, nor is there likely to be. You need email for some communications and perhaps instant messaging such as for urgent communication in small groups or between a manager and support staff. You need project management software for some functions. You may benefit from a tool like Jira or Basecamp in some developer and IT functions. Wikis can be useful as well, though they tend to be used most by technical folks who don't need a good user interface. For sales and marketing collaboration, Jive, Yammer, Convo, or Chatter might fit the bill. A tool like EMC VMware's Socialcast can be useful in ideation-heavy roles such as product development. You get the picture: Use the right tool for the job at hand.

Today, many collaboration tools don't support what people actual do, so people revert to their old approaches. "If you can get 10 times the benefit, you'll get adoption. That's true for both tools and behavior," notes Forrester's Schadler. He cites Google Docs, Dropbox, and Skype as technologies that delivered that level of improvement and thus have gained deep adoption in various domains.

Ironically, many of those reversion approaches involve previous generations of collaboration technology. Some organizations still use Lotus Notes, a 30-year-old collaboration suite that was revolutionary in its debut as the first digital collaboration tool that handled communications and documents. Email is the most common collaboration tool, used not just for messaging but document storage -- though it was not designed for that purpose. And many people use Excel as a project management tool to track tasks and deliverables.

In other words, the generations of collaboration tools that followed Notes and email have largely failed. SharePoint had a brief time in the collaboration sun, but as Microsoft enhanced the IT controls over it to end "SharePoint diarrhea" -- the proliferation of staff-created one-off SharePoint collections -- and ensure document security, it became harder and harder to use and more and more expensive to maintain, falling into the same trap that led to Notes' downhill journey. (Microsoft has lessened SharePoint's utility further by preventing it from working in non-Microsoft environments, so it can't be deployed in many environments where staff and contractors use a mix of platforms. I have to wonder if Microsoft isn't preparing to absorb SharePoint into Yammer, which it acquired last year.)

Current-generation collaboration tools still have a long way to go, especially in differentiating decisions by managers from requests from collaborators -- too many treat collaboration as a free-for-all where everyone decides or thinks they can. It's often difficult to work in context in documents, especially in mobile platforms that are heavily used by the initial target of collaboration tools: sales, marketing, and executives.

But Schadler says that, over time, "We'll see more coherent approaches. Email had a similar trajectory, after all -- remember 'Why email? They're down the hall'?" In the meantime, he advises focusing on specific collaboration needs and identifying technologies that truly support them. A good place to start is to "look for scenarios where people are working differently, then seeing what tools they are using." People, especially those engaged in creative work, are good at finding tools. Rather than impose tools on such people, see if you can grow from what they find useful or at least use them as a starting model.

This article, "Social business apps' weakness: Being social," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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