Enterprise success with emerging social technology

Sameer Patel of Sovos Group places social technology in the context of software that enterprises already use.

Interview conducted by Alan Morrison and Bo Parker
Photo: Sameer Patel

Sameer Patel, a partner at Sovos Group, has consulted on enterprise collaboration strategy and technology planning for more than 13 years, starting at USWeb (marchFIRST).


PwC: What are the more recent challenges companies have been facing on the collaboration front?

SP: The fundamental problem with those old collaborative systems was that they were devoid of context. You would see stuff thrown at you and it was not really tied into your daily flow of work. You were expected to go into these knowledge bases that are separate from where you might live.

You might be a call center rep who is living in a call center application, or you might be someone in the finance department living in ERP [enterprise resource planning] financials. These are very disconnected worlds, and the process apps focused on taking you through your processes. The knowledge management was just sitting in a vacuum waiting for you to associate context.

The true value of enterprise social computing will come from bringing data, content, and people together in the context of business activities. Context is not just a general-purpose content management effort or a knowledge management effort. Online collaboration needs to be embedded in the flow of work to get you to the end goal more effectively, as opposed to yet another place for workers to remember to go to.

PwC: What’s your take on the current generation of tools and how they’re moving toward that goal?

SP: You’ve got four camps, really. In the first camp, you have the general purpose tools that typically come from the startup community—that have garnered inspiration from consumer social tools, but are fitted for the enterprise context. In the second camp, you have the HR vendors that have been selling learning and performance management, as well as the whole HR suite. Their message is that because effective use of social technology is ultimately about people and the workforce, they’re the ones best positioned to push this to you.

The third camp is ERP vendors that help organizations complete a critical process in context—the SAPs and Oracles that build process-oriented systems. Salesforce.com, obviously, is one of these. Even though the company doesn’t have the entire ERP suite, it has Force.com—you can get every single conceivable ERP component from Force.com. IBM and TIBCO with tibbr can ultimately go in this camp, too.

Then the last camp is the unified communications companies. Cisco, for example, bought WebEx; has figured out video, face-to-face, online conferencing, and Voice over IP; and is now broadening the solution to include text-based engagement and collaboration.

That’s essentially the lay of the land starting out.

PwC: That being the landscape, is there an inherent advantage in any one of the camps over the others?

SP: I work for a consulting firm and so do you guys, so I’m going to say, “It depends.” There are tradeoffs. If you come from the process side (as a product company, for example), you have a focus that will always force you to be very disciplined about having context built in to how fluid collaboration and people connectivity can fill gaps in a traditional workflow-laden design.

A professional services company, a very people-centered business, tends to go with the central suites, whether they buy IBM Connections or Jive. It’s not about sitting in ERP screens all day long; these companies don’t have the same sort of workflow that a typical product company has. Less structured knowledge is the asset. So there’s a big focus on using collaboration suites to reuse knowledge and improve project margins.

The HR system marketing folks may make it sound like the HR management system is neatly tied to the social technology. It’s just not there yet, but I suspect they’ll get there in the next 6 to 10 months. Chief HR officers will say that the stream needs to be embedded into the HR management system, because ultimately they’re the ones who manage all the performance reviews, allocate resources, and manage talent and learning. And there’s certainly merit to that.

At best, one or two of the standalone platforms will continue to remain alone. The enterprise software vendors will offer a social information layer as part of their content management stack. Oracle has an entire content business; so do SAP and IBM. These tools will become part of one stack (either from one vendor or via tight partnerships) that will give you content management, document management, knowledge management, and social connectivity.

PwC: What about inhibitors?

SP: One issue the media doesn’t talk much about is the participation problem with some of these tools. Companies go through the hype phase and the excitement of buying Facebook-like tools for the enterprise, and then they don’t know what to share. People slow down their usage, and then they stop posting their status updates because they’re not seeing the value of it. This is one of the problems when participatory intent is not clear to the user and when the social platform is largely decoupled from contextual work.

The participation issue is a symptom of a deep problem with a lack of business alignment and participation incentives. These issues should be addressed before the software is rolled out. A lot of enterprises wait until the switch has been flipped to then figure out how they will get people to use it. They’ve really not done the proper planning or gotten the right groups to understand how it facilitates the core process they’re responsible for.

People are not measured on which tool they use; they’re measured on getting their work done. You have to have that alignment, which is one of the biggest issues. People will hide behind culture and other challenges such as the Millennial argument, which has some truth to it but not nearly as much as they say. The problem is that the “What’s in it for me?” factor has not been identified for these users.

Another big issue is just good old politics 101. A lot of the activity and effort that’s been evident so far has been emergent. For example, pockets of the company will go off and get their own accounts, and usage will start to gain some steam in engineering or in a product development group. Even if this thing starts to show promise, executives often will not get behind something that they can’t take full credit for. So, if they can’t say that they invented it and they’re the ones who brought it to the company, then they don’t get all the points for it.

The third problem is from a marketing standpoint. Often, vendors will sell stuff to an IT director or a CIO, and they present general-purpose benefits that make a lot of sense to a forward-thinking IT executive. After the purchase, those same marketing materials from the vendor are used as selling materials to the end user. When end users look at some of these nebulous outcomes, such as “Share more; it’s better,” they say, “All this information sharing doesn’t matter to me; my target is to do 50 customer calls in the day and go home.” Those outcomes need to be translated into why it makes sense for them, so there’s a lot of that confusion.

The fourth problem, and this is probably one of the biggest, is I’ve never met a CEO or another CxO who is going to say, “We don’t want to innovate and we don’t want to share knowledge.” The problem is that they’ll often tell someone in their executive team, “OK, we’re going to do this. Who’s going to take ownership of this thing?” Everyone’s going to look around, nod their heads, and say, “This is a fabulous idea, Bob. Why don’t you take it?”

At the CEO level, of course they want more innovation and sharing, but every person sitting in that room is in charge of quota, pushing product out the door, growing a geographic footprint, and the like. That’s where broad, nebulous goals such as improve innovation and sharing start to get difficult to execute. This goes back to articulating the value of social and collaborative approaches and technology in the context of known performance headaches and opportunities that executives face today.

Sameer Patel

PwC: These are systemic inefficiencies of some sort?

SP: Yes. We’ve been living in this myth that stuff that happens at companies is very repeatable. We put all these CRM [customer relationship management], ERP, and MRP [materials requirements planning] systems in place thinking that they’re repeatable processes and we can get repeatable value out of the systems. The truth is that every single process in the enterprise is not as repeatable as we would like it to be. People have questions along the way.

ERP systems have boiled down every single business application to a submit and a cancel button, when really what users want is a giant discuss button sometimes. Users don’t know the right answer sometimes, they need to get help, and they need to find the right people to help them. That need is more acute in some processes than others, for example, in areas of the company where there are inefficiencies, where products haven’t gotten out the door, or where the quality is lower.

Until it’s clear that social and collaborative approaches and tools can address big problems and can have operating and financial benefit, it will be challenging to make them C-suite imperatives.

 

“I’ve never met a CxO who is going to say, ‘We don’t want to innovate and we don’t want to share knowledge.’ The problem is that they’ll often tell someone in their executive team, ‘OK, we’re going to do this. Who’s going to take ownership of this thing?’ Everyone’s going to look around, nod their heads, and say, ‘This is a fabulous idea, Bob. Why don’t you take it?’ ”

 
 

PwC: Speaking of finding people who can help, that issue seems tied to a lack of online individual identities in a company. If the identities of each individual in the workforce were visible, how would that help?’

SP: This battle will ultimately be won on identity management. Beyond usability as a differentiator, many elements in the enterprise social software suite are becoming commodities. The magic will happen when we tie in implicit and explicit profile data elements of our individual public and historical profiles with our enterprise social profiles and, of course, HR. That’s when your colleagues and others get a true sense of who you are, what you think you’re good at, and, just as important, what the community thinks you’re good at.

Social software can essentially help companies meet their performance objectives in much more efficient ways by facilitating connection and discussion. Once that becomes obvious, it will be surprising how many people are willing to engage.