How social tools are revolutionizing business collaboration

When it comes to social technology, one first thinks of Facebook, Google+, or Twitter. Businesses generally consider how to take advantage of these Web tools to connect with customers—providing support, generating leads, building the brand, or marketing products and services. A few companies, however, are exploring how powerful new social tools can revolutionize organizations from the inside out.

The potential of this technology is huge, according to a recent report by PwC's Center for Technology and Innovation. Some people predict that enterprise social networking applications, which leading organizations have begun to pilot, will change the very nature of work communication—taking it from a sea of e-mail to more efficient and collaborative alternatives. Instead of dealing with information overload and wasting time trying to find answers to their questions, people will see just what interests them or just what they need to do their jobs. This change is made possible by tools that let workers subscribe to topics, aggregate and filter content from different company systems, create watch lists, and follow people they select (from the CEO to the service technician with a shared interest in nanotechnology).

Evolution of the social graph in an enterprise

Evolution of the social graph in an enterprise

The key is to enable individuals—and computer systems—to see the connections that exist between people and ideas. Consider the example of an electronics manufacturer that is facing a parts shortage due to an earthquake in Asia. (See figure.) Different people in the company are affected by the event and respond to it within his or her own silo: procurement managers, business analysts, product managers, and even the CFO. With social tools, information from one system, such as a supplier list in the procurement system or a demand forecast in the enterprise resource planning system, can be made available to people from different departments who then can collaborate on the most appropriate response. In this example, the collective buzz around the parts shortage ultimately registers on the CFO's dashboard. He or she is able to get the latest details and is prepared to discuss the situation on an analyst call the next day.

Mapping connections

The power of visualization has never been greater. Special maps called social graphs and interest graphs will make it possible for individuals to connect with relevant information and people. A social graph, such as Facebook, basically is a map of people and their relationships, while an interest graph is a map of topics, ideas, or business issues and how they're interrelated. Using the two together—provided they are in the Resource Description Framework or graph form—people and machines can efficiently browse, search, and find just what they need.

Creating these maps within an organization is no easy task; while software products like Cisco Quad, IBM Connections, and SAP StreamWork now are available, people must be willing to invest the time it takes to use such tools in a way that mirrors what employees focus on at work each day. And that means everyone: The greater number of people in a company who create profiles, link to other staff, and comment on activity streams, the more value the tools can deliver to the business.

As companies begin to experiment and have success with social collaboration tools, they will begin to understand what we call the collaboration paradox: Adding more information to the mix—social information—actually can help companies combat info overload by creating additional context that makes it easy to zero in on exactly what you need.


1 Transforming collaboration with social tools," Technology forecast, 2011, Issue 3, http://www.pwc.com/us/en/technology-forecast/2011/issue3/index.jhtml.