Sharing things, and ourselves

There are two kinds of people in the world: those that think social is about sharing things, and those that think it’s about sharing our selves.
Like all one-liners, the statement above is a hopeless overgeneralization. But I think it helps to try to connect the dots on a lot of the commentary  about social tools and their impact on business and society. At the most banal, when we use a tool to share a file, or an event, or a task with another person, we are doing that: sharing a file, an event, or a task. Perhaps we can discuss that tool without exploring motivation and purpose, at all. But perhaps we can’t. Even if we don’t explicitly lay our use cases for the people sharing the files, events, and tasks that fill the social tool under discussion, aren’t the use cases implicit? Isn’t there always a user trying to make things, sell things, or find things? And doesn’t that user have some larger goal? Isn’t the tool a means to an end, like a forklift being used to build a building, a hospital or a cathedral? Aren’t all the use cases about people connecting, collaborating, communicating?
I think this dualism is inescapable. Yes, people are trying to accomplish life goals as they employ tools to share. Like tiny fragments of broken tiles,  pasted into mosaics, we really need to step back to gain a perspective so that the chips of blue, green, and red can form a tableau, and represent something larger, something more that the sum of its parts.
Writing about social tools is exactly like that. On one hand, we are discussing whether some product allows us to attach a file to a task, or whether a new solution integrates with Dropbox or Google Drive. We are down in the weeds half the time, or more, it seems.
But I am reminded of the quote from Oscar Wilde, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.
It’s the impacts of these tools — the way that they shift the workings of our minds and organizations — that pulls analysis up from being just a dreary obsession with features and their relative benefits. We are changed by the tools we use,  and potentially made better, wiser, kinder. So, there is a second aspect of this analysis, which is looking at the human mind and our attempts to connect.
This past week was a great example of that dichotomy, moving back and forth from a review of the specifics of collaborative tools to the larger questions of their impacts on us as individuals, or as a society.
I looked at a number of applications that allow us to collaborate in tightly defined ways:

On the more societal level, I explored a number of themes related to productivity:

  • Coworking is exploding and not just because it saves money for freelancers. Its real boost come from the power of supportive communities, and how those communities foster increased productivity.
  • I build on some thoughts of Anna Carlson’s on social learning, and suggest that 80% is eliminating fear, and 20% is regaining a childlike curiosity, or what Zen practitioners call ‘beginning’s mind’.
  • Sameer Patel dug into some of my earlier comments on the longevity of email, and makes the argument that social tools have just not gone far enough to obsolete email, yet.
  • I wondered if outsourcing your own job to a company in China (like the Verizon programmer, ‘Bob’) was really such a bad idea, and hand waved at a business based on that possibility.

So, another week of using a microscope to examine our tools and then a telescope to gaze at us, using them. It’s kind of a great job, really.

Sameer Patel on social’s tussle with email

I wrote a post recently, The Surprising Truth: Technology Is Aging in Reverse, that explored some thoughts from Nassim Taleb about how older technology is likely to be with us a long time, because it gets entrenched in our use cases. I made the fairly obvious argument that email is such a technology, and that it’s likely to be with us for a long time.
Sameer Patel of SAP had some thoughts on that, starting with Alan Lepofsky’s argument that using social networks as alternatives to email doesn’t really move the needle: they can just amplify things by creating email notifications themselves.

Sameer Patel, Social’s Tussle with Email
Look, information overload is absolutely a huge problem. But enterprise social networking isn’t the obvious solution. What’s needed is what Stowe describes as “new communication technologies have to be a full order of magnitude better that those that came earlier”. That full order of magnitude won’t come from just shifting notifications from Outlook to social network feeds. Rather, it will come from making it exponentially more efficient to message, to collaborate and to share in radically different ways where the outcome is 5-10-50 times better. And one of those ways is to infuse:

  1. Comprehensive people discovery based on new identity paradigms, and
  2. Collaboration into core business activities and tasks and in a way that implicitly shows how collaboration capabilities available at whatever point of action — a business event like discussing an invoice exception, or facilitating sales budgeting within your Finance ERP application, or dispute resolution with a supplier — making it far more effective to drive execution and decisions than anything that your zero-IQ email inbox can even dream of handling.

Nassim points a new headache: regardless of your good intentions to kill email, the odd are against you. Moving from one dumb messaging paradigm like email to another dumb messaging paradigm like stand-alone social networking won’t cut it.
But in actuality, the stakes are really high. On one hand, most core business activities have a huge unstructured component that happens outside transaction systems such as CRM, Talent Management or Supply Chain. But we have a way to go when it comes to leveraging social tools to facilitate this change. On the other hand, none of us need statistics to really convince ourselves that email bankruptcy is a fact of working life for almost all of us. So clearly the opportunity to show a better approach is ripe.

Sameer is making several points here:

  1. Work media (enterprise social networks) have the promise of breaking open the closed communication models of email’s ‘dumb messaging paradigm’, but are actually relatively closed  themselves. For example, most of these solutions don’t implement anything like the open follower model of Twitter and Tumblr. Work media is very bound to a 1990s’ project mentality, where people are invited to projects and that’s the information that flows into their activity streams.
  2. Yes, a great deal of the richness of business collaboration, communication, and coordination takes place outside of transactional systems and communication tools. We can hope that new tools will show up to capture more of what’s going on.
  3. Email is still with us, because social tools haven’t gone far enough to make email obsolete, they haven’t come close to the order of magnitude improvement I suggested was necessary to jettison email altogether.

Today in Social

One characteristic of the Future of Work is the distributed and extended team. Companies need to support mobile, remote employees with modern collaboration tools, but they need to extend that support to their business partners (distributors, vendors, service providers) and to their customers. Enterprise solutions managed by IT are often hard to use, expensive and time-consuming to deploy and integrate. That has led to a lot of IT consumerization, where cloud-based tools and services, often with freemium pricing, have gained departmental adoption without needing to draw on IT resources. GigaOM Pro recently ran an analyst roundtable on how to get the most out of such document- and file-sharing collaboration systems. GigaOM Pro analyst Sameer Patel discussed “contextual collaboration” and the need for the proper metadata attached to business content. Pro analyst Larry Hawes and Brian Curry, of webinar sponsor YouSendIt, talked about how to encourage adoption across departments and the the extended enterprise. We also looked at integration strategies. To view the webinar on-demand, check in to our analyst roundtable “The Future of Work: Collaborating Around Business Content.”

Disclosure: YouSendIt is backed by Alloy Ventures, which also backs GigaOmni Media, the parent company of GigaOM.