Deb Lavoy thinks vocabulary matters, and she’s right

I sat in on a presentation at Social Media Week by Deb Lavoy, Product Manager for Social Media at OpenText, and an old friend.

Deb started by smacking us in the face with a stat from a Gartner report released in January:

80 percent of social business efforts will not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership and an overemphasis on technology.

But Deb doesn’t buy it, and she made an interesting argument, saying that its not the lack of leadership that is holding back the adoption and leveraging of social tools, and it’s not flaws in the technology. What is blocking us from gaining what we are after in the application of social business tools and techniques is, she says, vocabulary.

I am not going to recapitulate her talk, point for point, but I want to tease out a few of her points and reflect on them.

By vocabulary, Deb is trying to make the point that two people can use the same word but have very different notions of what they mean. Collaboration is such a word. One person in a company can say collaboration and envisions a top-down, command-and-control sort of coordinated work, an assembly line model of the world. And, yes, in a generous definition of the term that could be considered collaboration, which is derived from ‘co-labor’, working together. Another person in the same company might envision a more modern and more bottom-up sort of collaboration, where people are sharing status updates and other information in streaming work media applications via the web.

As Deb said,

Words are the access points into each others’ minds.

in 2005, I wrote on this subject, and I think the ideas I expressed are still central to what Deb is getting at. My concern — which may not exactly be hers — is the distinction between the terms ‘collaboration’ and ‘social business’:

Stowe Boyd, Metaphors Matter: Collaborative Technology Versus Social Tools

I hope that the danger inherent in metaphors doesn’t blow up in this discipline, like we saw in the ill-fated knowledge management experiment, where the industrial and financial concept of managing and controlling assets led to a wholesale dehumanizing of knowledge and disastrous results in hundreds of knowledge strip-mining projects.

On one hand, it may seem obvious and sensible that we are talking about people collaborating: sharing information, coordinating activities, and posting messages. Working toward shared goals, in project teams, trying to get things done. All very straight forward, and, perhaps not so obviously, very corporate, very industrial.

Superficially, there is nothing wrong with a focus on collaborative technology. But I believe that this perspective, this metaphor, is flawed. It focuses on the wrong side of the coin.

The collaborative technology metaphor highlights the machinery, the technology platform that underlies people collaborating, and underemphasizes what people are doing: socializing. And I don’t mean socializing, like gossiping, per se. But I do mean the creation, care, and feeding of social ties, the use of trust and reputation, and the application of digital identity.

Technologists — and I am a recovering technologist, so I know — focus on the tools, the plumbing, and information flow. Collaborative technologies are viewed as pipes that bits float through; people are sources and sinks for messages, or documents, or other artifacts through these pipes. A collaborative assemply line, where people are like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, struggling to keep up with the information flow.

But people focus on other people, not the infrastructure they tread upon. They don’t — in general — think about information in some disembodied way. They instead focus on their goals, their partners and clients, and when they think about getting things done, they approach it from a social perspective. “What will Jane think about working closely with Rich on this project?” or “Carlos doesn’t have great presentation skills, so who can we get to do the sales pitch for Company X?” or “What is the best group of people to pull together for this project?”

And while non-technologists are happy to adopt better communication, coordination, and collaboration tools, they seldom fall into “info-speak” about them. They don’t adopt instant messaging because it can lead to generalized performance benefits for the extended network of users (a technological/analytic viewpoint), but because it is a very natural, conversational, and effective form of communication.

And more importantly, perhaps, social tools quickly transcend their IT roots. They go beyond moving bits and bytes around the ‘net, and instead change the way in which we interact.

In a sense I was arguing that we shouldn’t cede control to the technologists by adopting a technology-centris term of art. The tools are means to an end, not the end itself.

Words are powerful, they frame we way to see the world. But we can see past them occasionally, and know, deeply, that a term that you have been using for years is now becoming a barrier to understanding, or, as Deb put it, you can ‘realize that a word you thought meant so much all of a sudden doesn’t mean enough’.