The Social Productivity Paradox is that personal productivity comes first

There is an important paradox looming behind all the discussions of social tools in business.

Yes, a social business is one in which people communicate and coordinate their work activities more fluidly, based on the flow of updates and shared objects in streams implemented by social platforms, and likewise, the same premises of socialized communication allow companies to connect more directly and authentically with communities of users.

But the locus of increased productivity — the leverage that social tools lend — is found in the most tightly defined and narrow of use cases: the work of individuals.

This does not mean that social tools are asocial, forcing us to work in solitude without social interaction. On the contrary. Social tools help us be more social by decreasing the time and effort involved in communication and coordination for individuals, and, to the extent that a tool is tightly focused on work activities in a specific function — like HR, sales, marketing, or customer support — by simplifying or accelerating the work in that function.

In the first case — general communication and coordination among the members of a workgroup — social tools rely on several social motifs that decrease the work needed to remain connected and aware of others. The dominant social motif of all successful social tools, I believe, is the follower model. In the open follower model — the most social form — users opt to follow other users, contexts, and objects based on individual choice. By contexts I refer to the usual mechanisms for compartmentalizing work activities, like projects, rooms, groups, and so on. And by objects I refer to information elements, like documents, discussions, polls, reports, deals, tickets, cases, or whatever sorts of information is managed by the tools. The leverage of following is that new information associated with the followed streams automatically to the follower without any action. There is no polling, searching, or browsing involved. And this is the first and most central productivity benefit of social tools.

Note that this benefit is first personal: when Jane opts to follow John she no longer has to email him, or look at this profile page, or walk to his office to find out what he’s done today. That is her motivation and payoff for following.

Yes, John also benefits since he doesn’t have to field requests from Jane and other coworkers who would otherwise ping him, so he understands the value of the effort he makes to check off tasks and make status updates on work that is critical to others. That’s his personal motivation and reward, as well.

And then there are second-order effects, certainly. This week I wrote about the impact on group productivity by sharing progress made on critical work (see Checking off our to-dos makes us happy, and others, too), based on the research of Robert Meade. And creating a work context when critical information finds its way to people naturally, through follower-to-followed connections, has profound cultural and behavioral consequences.

This can be thought of as the transition from push to pull.

In a social follow model, the person who wants information registers that interest by following: they pull the information. They choose what is important based on their own perspective.

The pre-social model was predominantly push, like old school advertising, or interoffice memos. The classic contemporary example is a company in which corporate communication is channeled through email with long cc lists. Others — the producers of information — decide who should receive it, and the recipients are left with new tasks to do: to read and assimilate these emails, and perhaps take some action, as well.

Social tools generally implement some limited version of the fully open follower model. For example, in many work media tools (enterprise social networks) following is only supported implicitly, through membership in projects. Once you are a participant in a project context status then you will receive updates made there, and changes to the objects stored there.  Sadly, most of these tools today don’t support following of individuals, which is an odd omission, but represents the abiding management concern that people will use the newest communication tools to gossip. This has happened at every previous stage, with instant messaging, the web, cell phones, and even the telephone-on-every-desk movement after WWII.

A number of posts this past week dealt with issues related to this paradox. For example, I reviewed Close.io (see Close.io is a social context for sales communications), a social selling tool:

I have made the case a number of times recently that the most interesting innovations in social tools are going to come from small and simple application, ones that focus obsessively on the activities of individuals in sales, HR, marketing, customer support, or the like. They will create a social context — allowing low friction communication based on stream-bases social metaphors like the open follower model — but a context that frames and accelerates the work of the individual.

[…]

My sense is that the adoption of narrowly defined scope for the software support of work activities will lead to the greatest opportunities in innovation and productivity. This means the tools have to focus at the scale of work undertaken by individuals:  at the task level, if you will. And instead of a defined process with work products — documents, reports, sales data — moving from role to role, we have instead the replacement of process-centric communication with social communication. And social communication is based on personal relationships as defined by social networks. Instead of a fixed sales process with predefined communication built into the process, we see people engaged in sales activities not rigidly defined by a process and where the primary form of communication is social: information moving through streamed updates based on following relationships.

And Close.io is a great proof point for these ideas. By focusing obsessively on the fluid and self-defined activities of sellers, and building deep support for the contextualization of sales-related communications, Close.io upends the data- and process-centric model of sales.

In Work to create a predisposition to innovate in the social dimension I was inspired by a post written by Babak Nivi, one of the founders of AngelList, in which he argued that team members should ask for forgiveness, not permission. I wrote,

[…] individuals should be free to innovate in the way that their own work gets done, or a group should be able to redefine their flow of work, without some huge review process.

Certainly, the feedback of others is still relevant, and you are going to have to take responsibility for the results of your innovation — and clean up any messes that are caused — but the inclination should be toward innovation, and the attempt to improve customer satisfaction, product quality, response times, whatever. And this comes with the need to measure what you are seeking to improve. But the predisposition should be to act, to innovate as understood by the people closest to the work being done.

Most importantly, I think is that the individual should be empowered to make changes — to innovate — in the most personal work context: the activities involved in getting their own work done. Yes, there are limits as to how far an individual can go. In a software company, those working together on an application have to put the code in a single shared repository, for example. But the individual should be free to choose their own text editor.

And one other post touches on these ideas, as well, another example where I was inspired to write by a leader’s effort to create a culture in which individuals are given a great deal of say:

Stowe Boyd, Open email leads to ‘emergent coordination’

Greg Brockman of Stripe — the company that provides a credit card payment service that others can embed in web apps — has adopted a fairly revolutionary model of email use. They have — with a few exceptions — opted to keep all email open, and available to all staff. The original motivation was efficiency, but this experiment has led to a large impact on company structure.

Greg Brockman, Email transparency

Initially, the motivation for having all email be internally public and searchable was simply to make us more efficient. If everyone automatically knew what was happening, we needed fewer meetings, and our coordination was more fluid and more painless if we could all keep up with the stream.

As we’ve grown, the experiment has become about both efficiency and philosophy. We don’t just want Stripe to be a successful product and company. We also want to try to optimize the experience of working here. As as we’ve grown, we’ve come to realize that open email can help.

We value autonomy, rigorous debate, and avoiding hierarchy to the extent that we can. Startups often pride themselves on having a flat management structure but are eventually forced to put a formal coordination infrastructure in place as the number of actors grows. So far, our experience has been that an ambiently open flow of information helps to provide people with the context they need to choose useful things to work on. It doesn’t eliminate the need for other kinds of structure, but it does make emergent coordination much easier and more likely.

By creating an open email system, in which email is posted to topical shared lists, Brockway and Stripe created a pull system using push building blocks. Individuals choose what lists to follow, and updates are pushed to lists, not to people. And from that inversion, from that flip from push to pull, Stripe built a social, lean, and loose culture where individuals choose what is important to work on.

And that reinforces the paradoxical nature of social productivity: social means ‘me first’.

Close.io is a social context for sales communications

Close.io (pronounced ‘close-ee-oh’) is small and simple social app organized in a compelling way around the tight inner loop of today’s sellers ( the people formerly called ‘sales people’ or ‘salesmen’).

I have made the case a number of times recently that the most interesting innovations in social tools are going to come from small and simple application, ones that focus obsessively on the activities of individuals in sales, HR, marketing, customer support, or the like. They will create a social context — allowing low friction communication based on stream-bases social metaphors like the open follower model — but a context that frames and accelerates the work of the individual.

I think this forms the tool complement to the lean social concept I proposed recently (see Lean social means no paving the cowpaths):

I think lean social runs in conflict with the default model in most businesses today, the majority of which are still operating around the concept of fixed, well-defined business processes that people are supposed to ‘follow’ to get jobs done. But we’ve switched to a world of rapidly changing work, where work is becoming more collaborative, and solutions have to be contrived following general principles not exact formulas. Yes, the principles define a sort of meta process, but it is simply a general template for a modern sort of lean learning.

To expand that just a bit: business processes are based around the segregation of the workforce into roles and the passage of work products along a predefined sequence of steps. Notably, the ones doing the work are often not the ones that defined the process, and the processes are often defined to decrease interaction among the participants.

My sense is that the adoption of narrowly defined scope for the software support of work activities will lead to the greatest opportunities in innovation and productivity. This means the tools have to focus at the scale of work undertaken by individuals:  at the task level, if you will. And instead of a defined process with work products — documents, reports, sales data — moving from role to role, we have instead the replacement of process-centric communication with social communication. And social communication is based on personal relationships as defined by social networks. Instead of a fixed sales process with predefined communication built into the process, we see people engaged in sales activities not rigidly defined by a process and where the primary form of communication is social: information moving through streamed updates based on following relationships.

And Close.io is a great proof point for these ideas. By focusing obsessively on the fluid and self-defined activities of sellers, and building deep support for the contextualization of sales-related communications, Close.io upends the data- and process-centric model of sales.

To do so, Close.io becomes a sales oriented communication hub for the seller, and the communication take place in the context of the sale. For example, Close.io has an integrated email client, and when pursuing a lead, the sale-related email exchanges with the client take place in context, so there is no additional data entry related to last email sent, etc.

Here’s a discussion I am having with a Close.io contact. It’s not really a discussion with a lead but the idea is the same. At the bottom right is an earlier email, a more recent one in the middle  and at the top right a place to add a note. You can also see the notifications pull-down, showing that I have a voicemail in my Close.io voicemail box.

Close.io Email

Close.io Email

Close.io offers this VOIP telephony integration as part of the same notion: keeping the communications activities of the seller right in the context of the sales stream. I saw a video on the company website — sadly of too low resolution to effectively copy a screenshot — which captures this wonderfully. The seller calls while having the opportunity open on the screen, the call is logged, the sale is made, the seller checks off the closed deal, and all this happens in the deal. There is no context shifting in and out of the sales application to an email client, or to a cell phone: everything is in the same place.

Close.io also has the mechanisms of sales tracking, so numbers are aggregated, calculated, and shared with the sales team:

Close.io

Close.io Opportunities

The Bottom Line

Obviously, this is more of a drive-by review than a deep use-case-based analysis. I haven’t really tried to sketch out the requirements of a hypothetical sales team, and measured this tool against them. However, I think that the design approach motivating the implementation of Close.io is a good example of lean social thinking, and as a result, will meld well with organizations that are adopting a  lean social approach.

Crushpath is a promising take on social selling

My old friend Sam Lawrence, who I met years ago when he was chief marketing officer at Jive, has founded a new social selling company, Crushpath, which launched last year.
(Just in passing — I have always found the term ‘customer relationship management’ misleading. Or perhaps it’s a good term misapplied to software intended to help sales people sell. So I am going to try to establish a sort of truth-in-analysis pact here, where I will call vertically focused social tools by unambiguous names, whenever possible. Like ‘social selling’, ‘social marketing’, ‘social customer support’, and so on.)
Crushpath is a promising departure from the contact-and-data centric approaches that we have come to think of as ‘CRM’ software. And Crushpath unabashedly positions itself as being pitch-centric, or maybe just sales-centric.
At the heart of the tool is the Crushpath, a timeline-based representation of the interactions between the sales team (shown on the left in the screenshot below) and the prospect (shown on the right below). I think this back-and-forth representation is a great way to keep up with the status of a deal under discussion, and an easy way for a team selling together too coordinate their activities intuitively.

Capturing the give-and-take involves Crashpath’s email integration, but also direct contact with prospects through a second innovation. Crushpath allows sales people to create what they call ‘pitch sites’, which are what they sound like: websites that are customized by Crushpath users to make a pitch to prospective clients. The pitch sites can be general, or designed to interest a specific contact.

In the pitch site above, you can see various contact hooks so that prospective clients can click and send a message to the Crushpath user, starting up a new discussion in a path. Note that the pitch sites are responsive, so they play nice on mobile devices.
While Crushpath is not contact-centric, obviously it allows saving and accessing leads, and generating and sharing projections, so it will fit in with the conventional sales processes in place in most companies, today. However, Crushpath clearly has one foot firmly planted in the new social, web-centric world of business, and aligns with the social logic that today’s sales professionals would like to use, given the right tools.