As far as I can make out, enterprise immune systems tend to try and reject the implementation of social software on one or more of five grounds:
- The McEnroe Defence. You cannot be serious. This isn’t work. It’s a waste of time. Just look at the terms used: blogs, wikis, chat, Really Simple Syndication. You’re paid to do hard work, do you think this is a holiday camp? Next you’ll be asking for massage parlours and pedicures and pool tables. Get real.
- Ostrich-Head-Meets-Sand. I have enough trouble trying to manage my e-mail and voicemail, now you want me to look in more places for more things and spend more time doing that. What are you, some kind of sadist? Just make my e-mail work, will you? And leave me alone.
- It’s All Rubbish Anyway. Just look at the crap that gets published and circulated. What’s the matter, suddenly you think everyone’s an expert? if you really think so, we don’t need you, do we? So go fire yourself and leave us real experts to get on with our jobs.
- Say It Ain’t So, Clayton. Look, I just want what I already have to work faster, cheaper, better. What do you mean, Innovator’s Dilemma? I’ll give you Dilemma. Some of us have real jobs and don’t have time to read.
- Where’s The Beef? So show me the ROI, get the business heads to sign up and commit, get the finance guys to vet independently, then do it. No tickee no payee.
Each of them merits a separate discussion. Nero Wolfe would probably just have said Pfui. But mere mortals like me need to understand the objections and find ways of overcoming them. The good thing is that the objections are there and open and visible; ironically, we tend to capture the objections in the conversations enabled by the social software being objected to. But that’s another matter.
Today I want to concentrate on the It’s All Rubbish Anyway objection, and its cater-cousins, Dumbing Down and Lowest Common Denominator.
My contention, similar to Andrew’s, is that particularly in enterprises, social software has the opposite effect. Rather than Dumb Down, it raises the Lowest Common Denominator.
1. To paraphrase Eric Raymond and Linus’s Law, given enough eyeballs all information-bugs are shallow. People have an incentive to correct things that are inaccurate or inadequate. The incentive is simple. Will it help them do their jobs better? Where I work, one of the first things I saw in the internal blogosphere was some sort of “worst intranet site” contest. That was Enterprise 2.0 cocking a snook at Content 1.0, and I am confident that something similar will come up for blogs and wiki entries. Sure we will have crap posted and entered, but when the crap is about something important, it gets corrected. Fast. And if it’s not important, who cares anyway? If a blog post falls and there isn’t anyone to hear it, does it make a sound?
The quality of the information and opinion posted will be sustained in direct proportion to the perceived putative value of the information or opinion.
Crap is created. It is rarely, if ever, co-created. Or even endorsed.
2. Social software allows us to make the information live, keep it up to date and relevant. The costs of maintenance are low, the burden of maintenance is shared. Go back to the Given Enough Eyeballs statement. If there aren’t enough eyeballs, then we should question whether there is a society in the first place rather than quibble about the value of the social software. Orchestras tend to be pretty poor when there’s just one guy trying to play all the instruments simultaneously. When I compare wiki usage to that of written manuals and policy documents, or to that of the traditional intranet, it isn’t even worth trying to make a case. Game over.
Good stuff lives. Crap dies.
3. The value of recommendations and ratings and collaborative filtering should not be underestimated either. You don’t have to get knee-deep in crap unless you particularly want to, in which case I’d suggest you have a different problem, nothing to do with social software…. although social software might help you find a solution. The collective intelligence and knowledge of the enterprise exposes itself most actively via the recommendation and collaborative filtering approaches. Stage one may well be Top Ten Lists or Star Posts or Most Read or whatever, but soon the recommendations kick in. And the eyeballs travel accordingly. As the boundaries between different disciplines continue to blur, expertise has new connotations. At least one of which is Trusted Advisor, Recommender-Worth-Listening-To.
4. While each subcommunity is characterised by having a core, a moderator, a 1000lb gorilla, don’t make the mistake of believing that this core is incredibly tiny and therefore easy to manipulate. Just not true. Opensource activity distributions operate. Something like for every 1000 observers and lurkers, we will have 80 activists and 20 hard-core editors. Twenty not one or two. Wikipedia has scaled, it has a thousand such people at the core. This is an incredibly powerful development in the context of guardians of quality.
5. It’s not just about the lowest-common-denominator being raised, there’s a long-tail effect as well. Enterprise implementations of social software are really not about a horde of people congregating and looking at one piece of crap. There’s a lot of uncommon denominators as well, and they’re not particularly low. I haven’t done the research, but I would guess that matching the population of viewers to the entries being viewed will have a long tail distribution. Small groups of people finding value in sharing and improving and co-creating small pockets of information, of little relevance to the world at large but incredibly important to the particular subcommunity. This did happen before, but the subcommunity was constrained by organisational structure and silo mentalities. The power we see now is in the lateral and viral nature of the subcommunities enabled by social software.
6. Finally, despite all this, there will still be some crap that doesn’t die, doesn’t atrophy, doesn’t get corrected or improved, yet is important. It’s called satire and irony, and is a critical part of the conversation. Crap is in the eye of the beholder.
There’s a lot we can learn about consumerisation and Generation M. But determining the value of social software to the enterprise by looking at the faeces of popular sites is zen koan-ish. Like looking at a reflection of the moon in a stagnant pond and believing it is the sun. Games and humour and satire are pretty normal ways of working out how new forms of communication work, how they can add value. But soon they grow up.