Adding social networking to business workflow

Tim Young of Socialcast considers how blending activity streams with existing applications can open the door to behavioral change inside enterprises.

Interview conducted by Alan Morrison and Galen Gruman
Photo: Tim Young

Tim Young is CEO of Socialcast, an enterprise social networking company he founded in 2005. VMware acquired Socialcast in May 2011.


PwC: How did Socialcast get started?

TY: Socialcast is a company I founded a few years ago in Irvine, California. In the spring of 2009 we moved it to San Francisco, and as of May 31, 2011, we were acquired by VMware.

I grew up in Southern California watching my family build a fairly significant manufacturing business, and I was really intrigued with the concept of merging social software with data in a manufacturing context. Specifically, how do we make information flow more efficiently between shifts of manufacturing workers, between supervisors, between plant managers and executives? I wanted to help enterprises understand their informal organization, rather than just their formal org chart.

PwC: And so providing employees with the means to create and manage their own visible online identity is a part of that concept?

TY: Yes. These tools create an identity that’s not just built on employees’ yearly performance reviews or a subjective opinion of their manager, but on the merits of their work. This is very, very powerful. When people not only share what they’re working on, but make that visible throughout the company, that’s what we mean by online identity.

When you analyze that new information layer, it’s allowing not only HR departments but also executives to find the people in the organization who are extremely passionate and making big contributions. All that collective knowledge becomes available directly rather than through the org chart.

By talking with middle managers and doing some analysis, we found that social technology is changing the role of middle management. Middle management is going from a command and control structure to much more like a coach or a mentor. Because more and more information is transparent, they’re really helping employees understand how executive management’s goals are attached to the specific items that individual contributors are working on, and they’re interpreting the meaning of that and why it’s important.

You can see these cultural shifts and how the shifts change roles. It is making middle managers much more critical to the success of organizations because they are micro-CEOs of their own domain. When you look at large companies that have hundreds of global offices, it’s really important that they have passionate people.

PwC: What benefits are the executives seeing?

TY: From an executive level, I think many companies don’t understand what is going on all the way down to the individual contributor level, and it’s because there just haven’t been tools that allow them to do that, especially qualitative tools. You can do surveys and polls, but you don’t get the ability for consistent real-time feedback from everyone in the organization—and that feedback is necessary to harness the collective human capital of the organization.

Then there’s the shared learning that goes on. When we talk to executives about advancing their organization from a human capital standpoint, shared learning is incredibly important, especially as they’re trying to move faster, be more competitive, and do more with less. It’s not necessarily destroying e-mail or trying to get rid of e-mail—it is taking over a part of the attention that we were giving tools such as e-mail.

PwC: How do users generally take to Socialcast initially?

TY: About 20 to 25 percent of users are early adopters. They tend to be people who are very active online both contributing content and connecting with friends, family, and colleagues through networking sites. There’s really no modification you would need to make; they just love this new capability. And then as you go from that 25 percent to the remaining 75 percent of the organization, you start to see an interesting phenomenon.

Their lack of usage or their nonsupport of the tool falls into a few different categories. Some of the biggest ones are, “I don’t want to learn a new tool,” and “I don’t want to learn a new way of working.” Another one is, “It’s not embedded in any of my workflows; it’s this new thing.”

When you look back at the history of KM [knowledge management], you see that many of those initiatives failed because they all tried to create a new kind of siloed area. Employees would say, “If I have an issue in my CRM [customer relationship management] or in my ERP [enterprise resource planning], I now have to switch context. I must go to this other external collaboration system and try to reframe the context of the problem, the comment, whatever I want to share, and then follow up in that system only to come back to my primary system and actually complete whatever action I needed to do.]

We looked at this problem in depth last year, and I think it’s indicative in one of the products we launched in 2010 called Socialcast Reach. Instead of having this one big stream that you must feed off of all the time and contribute to, we decided to take those streams and make them context specific in these other applications—embed conversations in your ERP, in your CRM, in your project system, in your SharePoint. That way, we can address the 75 percent of users who don’t want to learn a new tool. The social functionality they need is now within their workflow.

Now, when that user goes into that ERP application and pulls up that account screen, the activity screen for that specific account is right there within that app. They never have to go outside to another application. They can see who has worked on it, relevant conversation on it, who the expert is, and they can ask a question—all within the application.When they come back to that account in that account screen, all that information is there.

 

“What we’ve strived to do inside organizations is allow people to connect over the business objects that they deal with every day, whether that be a customer, a work order, a palette, a product, or a document that they’re working on. That’s really the difference.”

 
   

PwC: What gave you the idea to make streams context specific?

TY: The consumer analog would be Facebook Connect. For a long time, Facebook had this one portal destination very akin to the suite approach that Enterprise 2.0 companies have brought out.

What Facebook figured out, very intelligently, is that your social experience online doesn’t just begin and end with Facebook.com; it really goes everywhere—on CNN, on the blogs you read, everywhere. Adding Facebook Connect allows you to take your social graph with you in all those other places online. We provide basically the same thing. Socialcast Reach allows you to take that social graph—all the people you work with—with you in all your other apps.

PwC: It sounds like two things— one is that there’s essentially a communication channel, and the other is what those communicating are doing. So I’m assuming you can see where a person is currently in their work, what they’ve actually done, what other people have done. Is that correct?

TY: In general it’s correct. We’ve created what we would call social objects out of these business processes and workflows. A social object is something that two or more people connect over in the consumer world; it’s like a photo on Flickr or Facebook. You post it, I see it, like it, you comment on it. Even just looking at it, I’m connecting with you through this object.

What we’ve strived to do inside organizations is allow people to connect over the business objects that they deal with every day, whether that be a customer, a work order, a palette, a product, or a document that they’re working on. That’s really the difference.

Let’s say you’re part of the workforce at a book publisher, and you’re entering an ISBN [International Standard Book Number] in your inventory system. You actually pull up the whole record of information on that book title and get all that social information right there in that system. So you see all the people who have worked on it, whether it is the editor, the guy who ordered the paper, everybody. You also get to see all the conversation that’s happening. So we’re merging that business object and that conversation, where in the past it’s been separated; it’s either been done in e-mail or IM [instant messaging], and it’s very hard to pull all of that together.

How do users take to tools like Socialcast?

PwC: Does making both identity and conversation more visible lead to more accurate and complete expertise location?

TY: Yes. It all goes back to identity and what the employee is trying to do. It is one thing to locate a subject matter expert, and many systems have been able to do that, but the real value of expertise locations is getting feedback and getting a question answered or getting some insight on a subject. In that sense, the subject matter expert and the person who is seeking information must interact.

Both are trying to gain something from that exchange. In many of the previous systems, the subject matter experts store their information and build silos around themselves for reasons like job security because there’s really not any value in that exchange. So I give you that information, but what do I receive as the subject matter expert?

By making that information expertise exchange more transparent and open, the companies—over time—see their subject matter experts move from domain experts to mentors because that exchange is now out in the open. You’re not rewarded necessarily for being a subject matter expert as much as you are now rewarded for taking that information that you have and using it within the company to add value to the company, by sharing it appropriately.

In many cases, you’ll have known experts inside the company. But we have found that knowing where that ultimate expertise lies often is not helpful for an individual trying to get a question answered. It’s not helpful because typically the person who has the most expertise is not necessarily in a position or has the time to answer questions. So we can guide users to other people who might have less domain expertise, yet they are the most willing and able to actually help and get questions answered.

You really just need your question answered quickly, and in many cases you don’t need to talk to the leading subject matter expert in your company to get the correct answer. We look at people who not just have the most information or share the most information, but people who actually answer other people’s questions in that domain. Then we can point people who ask questions to those individuals.

PwC: So you can actually see the behavior to do this, and that changes the reward dynamic.

TY: Yes. Exposing the behavior changes a lot of things. We’ve seen CEOs go in, view a question-and-answer exchange, and they’ll like it or they’ll leave a comment. That action completely begins to change the mind-set of individuals. The SMEs’ willingness to share increases over time with more activity.

PwC: What’s the goal here?

TY: Obviously, one goal is that information flows extremely freely among people. But then there’s the specific business goal. With most any activity stream, you may get a lot of interesting conversations, but you won’t get repeatable value. People converse, but then what? What is the business goal of this? Organizations might say they’re not getting any repeatable value, so how do they really know what it’s doing? It’s the same thing—you put workers in a factory and what are they going to do?

In the end analysis, the functions must support processes and mission that result in repeated value. That’s the challenge and that’s what Socialcast is working on. We’re pushing the evolution of the tools and helping our customers, so they don’t get stuck with four walls and a bunch of talented people and nothing for them to focus on.

PwC: How does the recent acquisition by VMware change your vision for Socialcast?

TY: Joining with VMware provides us with the opportunity to expand our vision and advance as a core technology.