After a year writing about and working with social business strategy, tools, and change management I find it helpful to take a step back and assess what’s important and what could be – no, needs to be – better. Right before (ok, maybe a few weeks after) I step into a wholly different topic, I wanted to put a few ideas to “paper” on what I’d like the state of the world to be when I return from Tanzania.
It’s an interesting time for social business – when the “big guys” are adopting hybrid cloud solutions, buying up small “social” companies to incorporate into their larger offerings and existing systems, or trying to create their own. At the same time, there’s a really smart and large group of experts who feel this is all a trend and “social” still misses the point (and the bottom line).
So take this list with a grain of salt – it’s both the thoughts of a relative newbie and a dreamer. I’m laying out what I want to see, as a mixture of some emerging trends, some not-quite-yets, and some (as far as I know) unknowns.
It’s all about data
- Active business intelligence (BI) for dummies – the promise of big data is that there are nuggets of information out there – correlations, essentially – that will help you improve a business process, meet a customer need, create a new product, etc. As I’ve argued before, big data (right now) doesn’t mean better data or better analytics – it just means more data to work with… faster. This needs to change. If I’m a sales rep attending a conference, I want my big data tool to pull up everyone who is tweeting about the conference, cross reference their info in my company’s CRM, and create a prioritized list of people to talk to based on influence measures, interactions with our product and company, and advocacy rating as measured by the content they share on blogs, comments, and other interactions off- and online. Furthermore, I want it all to happen automatically, so that I don’t have to type out each tweet – I want a checklist of people to send it to (maybe I know something that the CRM hasn’t captured yet), with the option to customize some of the messages for high stakes prospects or clients. I want it pushed out to them.
- Near-field sensors paired with BI – Google Glasses are cool, but when paired with actual business intelligence, they become demonstrably more valuable (and cooler). Think of it this way – Google Glasses are (in theory) meant to tap into Google’s vast index of knowledge and information so when you look at mountain, a building, or the clouds, etc. you get contextual information. There is immense potential with this technology and one of the features that we don’t often talk about is the ability to see, sense, and “hear” what our bodies cannot normally. I’m not talking about reading someone else’s email, but rather gathering information from the space around me to make helpful connections through the visual (and auditory) world in a way that a smartphone alone cannot.
- A different kind of organizational history – increasingly, web analytics engines are able to capture “moments in time” when there was a shift in strategy or burst of chatter around a particular topic. The folks at Dachis group have been particularly good at providing customers tools to track the impact of planned events in the social web. But this seems like a limited use. Inside the company, there should be better ways to track “events” and their impact on key metrics and performance indicators. While we now rely on performance reviews, quarterly progress metrics, and other basic systems, we can rarely tie performance back to actions. Big Data should help identify what (and who) is working well, and where the most valuable interactions are along the literal and virtual supply chain.
- Recommendation engines that make matches, not products – Google isn’t good at everything. For example, it’s terrible at associations (this is surprising given how much data is has on you). Wikipedia, on the other hand, does this brilliantly – a word becomes a link which becomes a new piece of knowledge for you. You know who’s even better at this? People. People are fantastic about giving me recommendations about where to eat, what to read, what to see, who to date, etc. It seems that we should be able to take the umph and thinking behind match-making sites and pair them with different bits of knowledge and relationships that exist in an enterprise or business-client ecosystem. We’re starting to see this now but it’s amateur level.
- Discovery based training – If you’ve recently been the recipient of a 4 hour training at a table, in front of your screen, or even in an auditorium you realize how little progress we’ve made translating what we know about how people learn into how we actually help people build those skills. Remarkably, in-work learning looks more like a college lecture (which have a purpose – don’t get me wrong) than a 21st century lab. My friend learned to play the banjo by watching stuff on you tube – I’m pretty sure we can help train our workforce.
- Internal Klout-like ratings – this is hugely contentious. Think about the hailstorm that Klout et co. have drawn up in the public sphere when the scores don’t really “matter.” At the same time, we’re seeing these “scores that don’t matter” incorporated into CRM and other business tools to presumably allow for better customer engagement, retention, and research. I’ll take the bet that this is a growing trend and vouch for the early start ups that figure out how to take something like Yammer and other data from HRM systems to give internal scores that a) will be used in some way for performance management, and b) make everyone hate each other. Let me go ahead and say this kind of thinking is terrible, but it’s still likely to happen anyway.
Customization and self service
- Modular tools and software – Recently I was in a meeting where we were discussing a problem we were having about aggregating content from multiple sources for a range of audiences. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just drag and drop what we needed and be able to really easily customize it? someone asked. The short answer is yes – custom, easy to build apps should be the norm – no programmer needed. I think Zoho tried to do this with Zoho Creator and personally I think it’s both brilliant and the future.
One of the problems with my generation is that we’re inclined to forget that our colleagues, family, and politicians spent a lot energy and hard work developing systems that work – primarily so our lives would be better. With the proliferation of the internet, we’re as likely to spend our time “disrupting” things that don’t need to be disrupted than actually making something better. We’re more likely to create our own non-profit than join one that exists and try to improve it.
Social business feeds on that problem and makes it worse. When I’ve gone out there and said that IBM has the wrong approach with Connections (here and here), I wasn’t implying they were wrong about their social business strategy overall. They take hard-won business savvy and massive data to make businesses (and hopefully our planet) better. They’re a good company. They just don’t get the ecosystem thing – not sure why.
What we need now is a mix of three factors working together:
- Technology that helps us make better decisions about more than just what to buy – we talk about efficiency because cutting costs improves value for shareholders. At the same time, we have almost no systems for truly internalizing all of the costs of a business. If Wallmart actually took into account the costs on the families whose wages they’re disrupting, the environment their trucks and planes are polluting, and the tremendous cost on our economy of outsourcing, mom and pop would be back in business. I’m not asking for a corporate revolution – I’m simply asking for us to start putting some of our brains and technology behind developing the types of tools that actually make great models of all of those externalities so that we can make more informed decisions about our lives.
- Disruptions in the corporate environment – this is starting to happen, but won’t get very far with simply interlacing big systems with a little bit of “social.” We like to think that things like ESN and other social systems can yield high ROI, primarily by increasing employee productivity/engagement, reducing communication costs, and to a lesser degree, improving customer relations. The fundamental problem with all of these analysis is that they rely on the assumption that social is about added value. Said another way, it’s an assumption that corporations have it right and that big data, social CRM, and the majority of what people talk about re: social business are just good to have on top of everything else. That might be right – but what if it’s not? What if there’s a model that is actually better – for customers, employees, managers, etc. – than the corporation? There was a great article in HBR a few months back exploring this “third sector”, but I think it’s about more than just profit v non-profit, and goes to the heart of how and why organizations function with a focus on people, inside and out.
- Industry leadership beyond sales – We have literally dozens of factors of 10 more computing power now than we had went the Neil Armstrong took his first step on the moon. And, despite the recent success in landing a robot the size and weight of a large truck on Mars, we don’t really have a lot to show for it. We’re putting the vast majority of our wealth, brainpower, and attention in technology toward figuring how to sell more – how to get richer. Where is the curiosity, vision, leadership, that even gave rise to the audacity of a space program, or even Regan’s “star wars” program that laid the foundation for our modern satellite grid? While there are a few companies taking a stab at it – IBM’s smarter planet work, for one, and several Google projects as another – it’s not happening nearly fast enough given the resources that we have. Everything we have to connect the smartest people with the best technology should make this even easier.
Here’s the bottom line: if the industry settles for incremental improvements in sales as what’s driving innovations in technology, then that’s what we’ll get. Think bold, think conscientiously, and have the courage to ask “why not me?”