Origins of “social objects”
Nearly four years ago, Jyri Engestrom introduced us to the concept of social objects, and Hugh Macleod built on that theme, and what they said really resonated with me. As a result, I’ve been writing about social objects for a while, as you can see here from three years ago here, or more recently here and, only three months ago, here.
During that time, there’d been something gnawing away at me, driven largely by my gaining an increasing understanding of what consumerisation really means and implies. And what’s been gnawing away at me is this: are there social objects in the enterprise? If so is there a difference between the behaviour and characteristics of social objects in the enterprise and in the world at large? And does any of this matter anyway?
It seemed to make sense that the answer to these questions would be found in a better understanding of the systems used to create, publish, enrich, comment on and even exchange the digital social objects, so that was what I did. I engaged as passionately as possible with each wave, played with them for a while, sought to define analogies for them within the enterprise, and then refined them further by publishing my views on this blog and learning from the comments. This was what I did with blogs and wikis to begin with, then with facebook, and then with twitter. More recently, since joining Salesforce, I’ve been able to look more deeply into some of these aspects, particularly as I immersed myself in Chatter.
Systems of Record
The first layer of learning was about the differences between the enterprise world and the consumer world when it came to some of these systems. The thinking goes something like this:
- For centuries firms were viewed as hierarchies of customers and products. Naturally, this view permeated into the way firms accounted for what they did; everything in a firm was recorded as relating to customers or products, under the broad headings of costs, revenues and overheads. More recently this perspective of the firm has changed: as Boston professor N. Venkatraman has been telling us for a decade, firms are now networks of relationships and capabilities. Human and social capital are therefore rising in prominence; the conventions and systems to recognise and value and account for them are, however, somewhat lacking.
- The first “systems” to be computerised, comprising the processes, records and conventions underpinning what people actually did, these systems related to the ledgers and books of record that were being automated. So what we did was to enshrine the centuries-old way of looking at firms as hierarchies of products and customers. The way cost and profit centres were set up, the codes used, the way things were aggregated, “rolled up”, everything we did was redolent of the original thesis: firms were hierarchies of products and customers.
- These first systems, over time, became the backbone of the firm, the “books and records” that were inspectable, auditable, audited and reported. As the years went by, people started calling them enterprise resource management or ERP systems.
- The 1980s and 1990s provided firms with two shocks. The first shock was a real hard one. They discovered they had “customers”. Life did not actually begin and end within the walls of the organisation they worked for and often revered. So firms began to think of customers as something more than account numbers, and tried not to show their irritation when these “customers” actually wanted some help or advice or attention. Retail outlets actually began to think of the space they used for administration, in contrast to the space they reserved for “customers”. Utility service providers such as banks and water companies and transportation providers and telcos began their painful paths towards recognising the very existence of the customer, a path they continue to be on.
- The second shock was not quite as hard, but it was a shock nevertheless. Firms discovered that they had “supply chains”, that vertical integration was no longer guaranteed, that they needed to partner with others, source from others, in order just to survive. [At this stage I shall resist the temptation to speak of the tremendous damage done to industry in general as everything in sight was "re-engineered", an age of some truly appalling waste in the context of misguided and suboptimal reorganisations and outsourcing.]
- So during the decade between 1990 and 2000, the world of ERP had been joined by at least two more TLAs, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Supply Chain Management (SCM). [While I saw all three terms active in the mid-to-late 1980s, they were slow to come out of the gates from a computing perspective].
- This ERP-SCM-CRM world was just beginning to toodle along as the Web emerged and grew, and as a result a fourth classification emerged, that of e-commerce or e-biz or sometimes just “fulfilment”. And this whole shebang begat a slew of forks and joins and renames as they evolved, and billing, payments, complaints, enquiries and so on all took their place somewhere within that pantheon. Some went the way of CRM, others disappeared into the ERP camp, yet others wormed their way into e-commerce.
- And so the stage was set. These were the transactions of old, the full-grown equivalents of what started off as TP systems, laying out the books and records of the firm in all their glory. The Systems of Record were present, ready and accounted for.
Systems of Engagement
The second layer of learning dealt with the systems I’d become more familiar with over the past decade or so, in my post-Cluetrain state. [Note: I love The Cluetrain Manifesto, I think everyone who enjoys reading this blog should read that book at least once; I'm privileged to call the four authors my friends, and honoured to have been asked to submit a chapter to their 10th anniversary edition, now available in paperback as well.]
Cluetrain taught me many things, but three things stand out as the most important for me: one, that firms make money because their customers like what they stand for and what they do; two, that good firms have real, active relationships with their customers, they are in constant conversation with them, that the conversation is the way that values and needs and wants and aspirations and intentions are discovered and shared; and three, that for some reason firms keep forgetting this and morphing into command-and-control fortresses that “lock in” customers, “target” them and various other forms of corporate waterboarding.
Right now my thinking is somewhere along these lines:
- Systems of engagement make it easier for people to communicate with each other; the original telcos and post offices provided systems of engagement; as we added ways to communicate, these agencies had to change; Microsoft was the leading “system of engagement” provider for most of the last twenty-five years; facebook has now usurped their place.
- Initially, systems of engagement start very open and informal for a given communication medium: post, telegraph, telephone, email, IM, SMS, twitter, video calling. Then, as critical mass forms, many things change, search costs increase and the need for directories emerges. Classification systems enter the fray. Better search tools evolve.
- Each medium of communication comes with its own jargon, its short cuts, its conventions. Some of these fade away as a greater level of formality is afforded, others become a part of the furniture. [A friend and erstwhile colleague, Stu Berwick, used to remind me "It's polite to be silent" when talking about chat. What I've learnt since is that this is true for most new communications techniques. When I began using email, you didn't have to reply to every one. The same was true for chat, for SMS, for twitter. But now....]
- In a digital world, as the “system of engagement” matures, something else happens. The process of communication gets embedded with objects. Attachments to emails: documents, presentations, spreadsheets to begin with, all kinds of files later. Attachments to SMS: just pictures and sounds to begin with, soon video. Attachments to twitter: links to begin with, then photographs and sounds, now all of the above, usually presented as a shortened link.
- The internet changes the way systems of engagement work. All communication becomes at least two-way. Attachments disappear, to be replaced by everyone “looking” at the same object. The ability to comment on, enrich, amend, annotate is a powerful change agent, transforming the value of the embedded object. As a result, the tools change: digital social objects are editable, amendable, commentable, taggable. Archivable, searchable, findable. But in a new form, with a plethora of comments and other actions wrapped around the object.
The emerging role of social objects in the enterprise
We’re only just learning about these two layers, the systems of engagement and the systems of record. But one thing we know already, they’re fundamentally different. Systems of record tend to get built like Fort Knox: robust, imposing, unfriendly, hard to enter, hard to exit carrying anything at all, a place known and loved by very few, yet relied upon by many. Systems of engagement, on the other hand, are diametrically different: entry is available to all and sundry, there’s a level of openness in all interaction, the core behavioural style looks positively promiscuous in comparison to systems of record.
This fundamental difference, open versus closed, appears to permeate throughout what passes for social objects in each layer.
So when you look at “social” objects in the “systems of engagement” layer, at first sight they appear very anti-social indeed. Reports and enquiries generated by the systems of record are made available and accessible using the same rules as the systems of record themselves, Fort Knoxian security.
Appearances are deceptive. Because the way the reports and enquiries manifest themselves in systems of engagement is usually through e-mail and, more accurately, through e-mail attachments. Which are about as secure as …. well you all know the story of Cablegate.
As against this, the social objects that tend to manifest themselves in the systems of engagement are fundamentally social in character. Web urls are the most common, often shortened for convenience. The social objects pointed to are usually public in origin and availability. Most multimedia “attachments” are essentially uploads to public sites rather than mail-like attachments.
The problem space
These are very interesting times. The two layers of systems, the systems of record and the systems of convenience, are coming closer together, tectonic plates sliding gently across each other. No one has a problem with the anti-social objects that remain closed and private and confidential within the confines of the systems of record. No one has a problem with the social objects that remain open and web-based and public within the “unconfines” of the systems of engagement.
The problem is really to do with the export of private objects from the systems of record into the public space of the systems of engagement.
The first time we tried to do this, we exported the private objects either partially or completely into documents, presentations or spreadsheets, then proceeded to make them uncontrollably public by attaching them to e-mail. And look where that got us.
This time around, with tools like Chatter, the binding and orchestration between systems of record and systems of engagement is granular and controlled, down to individual data elements. Access security is much simpler to implement. And there is no confusion between what forms a social object and what doesn’t.
Outlook for social objects in the enterprise
Objects per se aren’t social; it’s the community around the object that makes it social. As long as enterprises are about communities, we will have social objects in the enterprise. As we continue to morph from product-customer hierarchies to relationship-capability networks, as we continue to bring human and social capital to the fore, as we continue to engage with our customers and supply chain, the enterprise will be more and more about communities.
And communities need social objects. Real social objects, not inadvertently publicised private objects.