Musing about social software in enterprises

If there was a kernel for this post, it was probably Sig at Thingamy writing “Forthcoming: documents, schmocuments and Pluto“. At least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Anyway, here’s the list. All beginning with S. Just for the heck of it.
Stalinists: Even though there is some doubt as to whether he actually ever said it, Stalin is often credited with saying that as long as people know there is an election, it’s not the people who vote that count, it’s the people who count the votes. A variation of this tends to operate in enterprises, where “power” is vested in the presentation-makers and minute-takers. What social software does is threaten this power.

Sadists: Learning to do things in an enterprise can be painful. Learning to do hard things can be very painful. I have worked in a company where, in order to save on stationery costs, they instituted a process whereby the “stationery cupboard” was only open on Tuesdays between 2pm and 4pm; if that wasn’t enough, no stationery could be ordered unless a form was filled in; and forms were only made available on Tuesday mornings between 10am and 10.30am. Learning how an organisation works is often like growing ear hair. There are no short cuts, it just takes a long time. And causes much suffering. What social software does is threaten to take away this familiar pain, leaving phantom limb sensations.

Stockholmers: Similar to hostages forming an attachment to their captor (despite the invidiousness of their position) there is an enterprise tendency to form deep-rooted and long-lasting relationships with lock-in vendors. This syndrome comes in two flavours: Temporary and Permanent. The Temporary one is less intense, fading when there is a change of management on the enterprise side. The Permanent version is a real feat of engineering, able to withstand multiple changes of management. Nobody gets fired for buying locks. What social software does is threaten to release the hostages from their secure jails.

Second-guessers: Any swarming or emergence effect needs to have a swarm in the first place. One place. With the plethora of options available in Web Too Many Oh, this creates a paradox of choice. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to choose. Second-guessers can stultify attempts to derive value from social software, by fragmenting the enterprise base in time and space. Space because they ensure multiple options are taken up simultaneously guaranteeing there is no critical mass, no liquidity. Time because they engineer an enterprise change-of-horse-in-midstream, never actually allowing the liquidity to be acquired. What social software does is threaten to take away the freedom of the second-guessers.

Sewer-dwellers: The ploy here is to define the battleground for social software as infrastructure, as plumbing. Even though it shouldn’t be the case, most enterprise buyers treat infrastructure as overpriced, oversold and over. As soon as the argument shifts to sewerage, the enterprise immune system has no problem repelling all boarders. This is despite the fact that social software has minimal infrastructure costs. Why do sewer-dwellers do this? Because it’s their home. What social software does is threaten to take away where they live.

Silobites: These are people who live in silos. Their jobs are to ensure that as much stuff as possible is stored in the silo, the bigger the silo the better they feel. They are defined by the walls. What social software does is threaten to take down these walls, building small connectors between silos.

Look at the things threatened. Power. Familiarity. Security. Housing. Freedom. Enough said.

20 thoughts on “Musing about social software in enterprises”

  1. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to choose. I don’t understand this in the context you describe?

    Sewer-dwellers: hmmm…so we’re not worried about the potential for process?

    Silobites – must be related to Trilobites…and just as fossilised.

  2. Brilliant JP, the bit about learning about organisations being like growing ear hair is surely going to go down in posterity! Best, chutki

  3. These are in answer to Dennis’s questions.

    The Bobby McGee pseudoquote referred to the fact that second-guessers need the plethora of choices in order to keep second-guessing. Bit like having too much money for your own good and upgtrading your mobile phone or digital camera every 3 months.

    I am definitely interested in the potential for process. What sewer-dwellers do is limit the capacity for investment in social software by reducing the argument to “infrastructure”, at which point everyone else joins the fray and repel all boarders. The Infrastructure flag rallies the organisational immune system.

    Social software has great potential for improving process, by being able to point out idiosyncrasies that an individual finds hard to expose. But to do this it has to embed within the organisation; the sewer-dweller manages to prevent that.

    Yes to Silobites.

    These are all Lesser Spotted Species but they still exist.

    Hope that helps.

  4. I’d add the Romantics….

    They believe that corporate processes should be hard to decipher, odd, inefficient and not very accountable. They speak with a wry smile when they share some details about one of their broadly institutionalized and mis-directed processes. For them it is supposed to be this way and any attempts to add collaborative, information-rich, and efficient processes are threatening to the very nature of doing business their vaunted traditions.

  5. Excellent JP!

    And you just “named” what I always did in the good old days when I had to sit on board of directors – Stalinist! (And I thought I was just innocently smart…)

    I always insisted on being the one to keep the minutes (and all were happy to give me the task, not being aware of my evil intents) – a slight twist here, my words there, nothing that could stir an accusation of misrepresentation – but I was in ultimate control! Still wonder why they let me do it… :)

    Yep, real-time transparency does chip away on the unintended power structures!

  6. JP, between your riff on Bobby McGee’s “freedom” and Orwell’s freedom-is-slavery motto from 1984 is an interesting perspective from Kenneth Burke’s GRAMMAR OF MOTIVES. As an economist, you should appreciate it, since it is his take on the concept of a free market:

    “‘Free market’ is, just ever so faintly, an oxymoron, as would become clearer if we stopped to realize that at the very basis of the concept is the notion of a LABOR market, i.e., a market where men’s ability to work for others is bought and sold. And where a free labor market is the general economic scene in which men must economically act, it is obvious that the ABILITY to sell one’s services (or one’s partial servitudes) is also synonymous with the NEED to sell one’s services. Now, a need is not ‘freedom,’ but ‘necessity,’ and a necessity not FROM WITHIN but FROM WITHOUT. A necessity FROM WITHIN can be equated with freedom, as Spinoza contended, since in accordance with necessity so conceived one ‘must’ follow the laws of his own internal development, which would equal freedom … . But a necessity FROM WITHOUT is compulsion. And when a need to sell one’s services is IMPOSED UPON one, the market to this extent would be not a ‘free’ market, but a ‘slave’ market.”

    The issue has less to do with being overwhelmed by choices and more to do with whether ANY of those choices align with our NEEDS and whether those needs come “from within” or “from without!”

    Kris, I am not sure where you got your concept of Romanticism; but I think you are laying a bad rap on its proponents. I prefer to think of the Romantics as the ones challenging the visions of the Enlightenment. Those are the visions that (to paraphrase Isaiah Berlin) (1) every question has an answer, (2) that answer is knowable, and (3) all those answers to all those questions are consistent with each other. Corporate processes will never fit those visions, not because they oppose Enlightment thinking but because they are SOCIAL, rather than positivist. This has all been discussed at greater lenth in the comments on Gordon Cook’s blog entry about metaphor at:

    Finally, an anecdote about Stalinism that I got from a talk that Larry Prusak gave at a conference in Hawaii (I think in January of 2000): A social psychology project decided to use some standardized personality profile and apply it to analyzing interviews of CEOs on what they felt was the personality of the “perfect” CEO. They then attempted to profile a variety of leaders from history, filling out their profile data on the basis of available historical evidence. You can see where this is leading: The result of the study was the the best fit to the profile of the perfect CEO compiled from the interview data was Joseph Stalin!

  7. Mine too, Tom, mine too. But I had to be forty before it began its real growth phase, as gravity moved my hair from scalp to ear and nose and a few other places. You can go grey young, You can go bald young. But you cannot grow prodigious ear hair until you’ve done your time. At least that’s what I’ve observed so far.

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