Building Social / Collaboration Platforms

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


I started my trek designing, developing, and managing social / collaboration platforms in 1996. Over those years I've been part of a lot of different projects, development of platforms, long term and short term strategy and planning with vendors in the space, and in recent years back helping design, and product management (from an advisory role and mentoring). I have also been framing product needs and flows for new systems (either plugging into existing social platforms for new major releases, adding these capabilities into existing platforms with distinctly different focus to augment them where other existing services can't fit, and / or building platforms from scratch). I have also been continuing to advising organizations by helping them understand their needs better and problem sets they are trying to resolve before they get into the selection process, so to best fit product to their actual needs.

The focus of this piece is for organizations looking at social and / or collaboration platforms or services for internal and / or external uses. This is to help provide some understanding when considering a build versus buy consideration, but also some background on platform and services design and development

Lessons Learned

The lessons learned aren't new lessons learned for me, but I'm finding they are still relevant and haven't shifted all that much in the last 7 to 10 years.

Build vs. Buy

The build versus buy question is oddly still asked. I had figured about 15 years ago that by 2010 organizations would mostly just consider buying a service or platform to use. Many organizations still are considering building, as social and collaboration seems easy. But,nearly always you want to buy a service or platform rather than building.

Why? Time. This is comparison is for getting things up and running and working smoothly at a somewhat foundational level.

On average, after going through needs assessment and right fitting a purchase decision a service or platform can be up and running optimally in around 9 months, with the usual range being 6 to 18 months. That is getting the service running, getting test groups in the service, optimizing and iterating the service, modifying the design and UI to meet needs, building taxonomies that work, getting onboarding created and honed, work through some lasting workflows based on needs, and getting community managers comfortable working with the service and patterns honed for the cultures they are working with. Most services and platforms can be up running and functional in 48 hours for very basic functions, usable in 2 weeks, working through initial groups and integrations in 3 to 6 months, and iterations and scale often span the 3 months to 18 month difference.

If you are building your own it is 2 years to 3 years on average to get something up and running and working smoothly. This 2 to 3 years is the comparison to the 9 month mark. Many well funded product development attempts are getting to feature parity with something they could buy in that 2 to 3 year span.

Why Build?

There a few reasons to go down the longer and more painful build path: 1) There isn't a product that remotely covers the complexities you are experiencing and have documented in your needs assessment (more than likely a good chunk of what you need to build can be bought); 2) The identity model and adaptive needs aren't supported by existing offerings (this is one of common reasons as identity models with adaptive use on most platforms are limited - most often limited on the free or bundled services - and in many platforms rather stiff and restrictive); 3) You are building or integrating a large collection of services that don't interconnect well and collaboration, social interactions, communication in and around them is essential; 4) The social components are internal to another platform you own and have built end-to-end. There are a few other edge cases to build rather than buy, but these four are the most common of the rare cases where buidling makes sense.

If building what is needed? The most important things needed is teams who have done this before a few times (yes not a team as this isn't a light effort). Building social platforms is hard and complex, it isn't adding commenting to content on an existing site, nor building a simple messaging system, but dealing with adaptive systems that will need to embrace and support many cultures and sub-cultures that intersect with their different mental models. See the roles needed in Team Roles Needed for Social Software Projects. If you have those covered, particularly the social sciences, and with people with serious depth on these, not just watched TED Talks, nor read light blog posts, nor the TLDR versions, but actually had years doing this on top of serious depth of understanding, then you may be ready.

How Can This Still Be So Lengthy?

Social software is hard and complex, which is the simple answer. There is a lot to build and account for. I've watched and worked with teams who have built a few platforms for social and collaboration in the past and sold them off. They have started anew and getting to a good platform with basic feature parity with some new functionality to move things forward it has been 2 years at a minimum.

In the past couple of years there have been quite a few new services surfacing that have design and development teams with nearly all members having 5 to 10 years of prior experience building and managing social platforms and in 6 to 9 months they have something decent, yet still a clumsy beta. The product isn't open to everybody. It normally goes through heavy iterations and most of them shut everything off for a few months for rebuilds and reopen beta again. A decently good and useable service and platform often hits that mark at the 2 year point, if not farther out.

Another reason it takes time is the adapting to changes and norms of use. Most organizations are looking at systems that will be relatively easy to understand for their employees and or customers so they spend minimal amount of time training and onboarding. The interaction patterns that are common and norms are rather fluid and shift a little or a lot every 9 months to 18 months or so. Patterns that were fine at the product development start, may have changed quite a bit in a year.

Social Interaction Design / User Experience is Complex

A few years back I framed out 20 social roles for different interaction model roles people fall into in social platforms / services. When I started talking about it vendors responded that they were lucky if they had two: User and Admin. In the past 6 years things have changed a little for vendors as they are trying to embrace more social roles. But, for community managers they are commonly working with 6 to 12 different roles and or personas, which has vendors working with a broad set of personas, sometimes beyond 15 (the social role is just one element of a persona and it is common in reality to have people with 4 or 6 different social roles they embrace across a few groups in a community or network.

Having those designing and developing a platform working from this understandings helps smooth some of the complexity. But, having solid familiarity with this diversity has become essential if building a service or platform that is expected to work broadly, which is what social platforms do.

The Wrap

Hopefully this helps a tiny bit when thinking through "should I build or buy" or "why is my social product development taking so long" questions.


Team Roles Needed for Social Software Projects

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , ,


I have a lot of hands-on designing, developing, and managing of social / collaborative platforms since 1996 and regularly advise product makers, vendors, and buyers around right fitting and understanding then working on solving problems they may have. One of the things that was regularly surfacing around 2007 as enterprise social platforms were getting taken seriously. But tool selection and roll out of them was often bumpy at best as there was a lack of the breadth of understanding around many services. This was the case with many vendors, but also really much the case on the customer side of things. When working through discovery of the problems that customers were having, usually in the “One Year Club”, many of the issues correlated to the lack of understanding the breadth of perspectives important to social and collaborative work and environments.

Looking at situations where products were right fits gave insight into what works well. The success factors surfaced where vendors with well rounded products that were correct fits for certain customers [commercial social platforms that understand social interactions at various scales and get their products right for specific users] and roll outs that have rather solid adoption. These all had breadth and depth of understanding. Looking at what helped them be successful it wasn’t one or two things, nor five, it was they had most of 14 different roles with roles in their selection, development, strategy, planning, launch, and running of their offering covered.

If you wanted to have success it became clear that having breadth and depth with these 14 roles would provide a good team that could help work through many, if not all the difficult struggles most social software / services rollouts and programs running face at one point or another. When looking across many of the projects I worked with in the One Year Club category (or colleagues who were working with programs that needed help) most of the efforts didn’t have the 14 roles covered. Most had 2 to 4 roles covered at best.

This gap was glaringly apparent when large parts of a rollout were in the custom build model, much like many organizations were struggling with around Microsoft SharePoint or other build your own solution platforms. Organizations weren’t buying finished products, but a platform that focussed on heavy customization (often with difficulty getting what they hope to do working well). Part was what came out of the box from SharePoint was a bit rough (3rd party solutions like Newsgator/Sitrion were quick ways to get things working well for social and collaboration needs in SharePoint with little hassle). What the teams working on SharePoint were lacking were 10 to 12 roles that they desperately needed for depth of understanding around how humans are social, how things function, ease of use in contexts, and other essential needs.

Moneyball of Social Software Teams

This breaks down the 14 roles at a somewhat high level. At times myself and others have called this the Moneyball system of social software. In baseball, which Moneyball focussed on, they focussed on what made the Oakland Athletics team with a low budget able to compete with large budget teams. Big budget teams focussed on home runs and star pitching along with other simple understandings of analysis. What the Oakland Athletics did was look at what makes a winning team and how to measure things based on outcomes by understanding things more broadly and deeply.

What I ran into was similar, though understanding the roles and needs to have a solid well rounded social software team, so to get solid successful results. Most solutions were rolled out with 2 to 5 roles with depth, but what are the other factors that also have deep value and because they were missing had a less than positive impact? Over the last 6 years or more I’ve shared this list of 14 in workshops and with long engagement clients (but at a deeper level), but also help them cover the ground across a few of them where I have that depth and breadth (from 20 years of experience with social software and formal learning).

One last thing to realize with this list, particularly if you are on the customer side, is you may not have these skills and roles, but your software or service provider cover some you are missing or help narrow the gaps for roles missing.

The 14 Social Software Roles for a Solid Team

IT Development

IT development is usually the one role that social software rollouts have covered. The development portion and getting the code right is often not an issue. This role covers development, integrations, stability, and upgrades / patches.

Content management

Content managers are incredibly helpful not only with content management practices and needs, but could also cover content strategy needs as well (if content strategy isn’t there working with communication specialist helps close this need). Most social environments have professionally created content that are part of their offerings as blogs or other more planned content models. But, content also surfaces out of conversations and cooperative activities in communities and groups. This content can be repurposed as it is or honed for other targeted and / or broad uses. Content managers also often works with document management and taxonomy roles for ease of finding and helping keep content well structured and easily found.

Community management

The community manager is a role that some organizations and services understand the need for to be successful. Others have yet to understand the need for this yet. Having a solid community manager who can help set the tone and culture of the community and groups, as well as help set good skills and practices in place for members of the social offering is a great asset. The community manager is the guide, host, and facilitator, but often has good depth working with difficult situations and turning them into very good outcomes. Good community managers are also adept at seeing needs and gaps in tools and services that need attention. A good community manager can’t fix a tool that isn’t a good fit for an organization, but can help get through that state to one that is a better fit, then help the better fit thrive.

Communication management

Solid communications management folks help with finding solid messages and well created content into a social environment. But, from a social perspective they also should have strength seeing content from users in the social environment that needs attention (as it is positive and needs more exposure, or it is negative and needs a calm way handling of it). Understanding the life cycles of content and workflows around finding, creating, honing, and right fitting content and messages shared from the organization as well as from the users is powerful and helps bring life to the social environment. Setting good content guidelines is another way the communication management role contribute to social environment success.

UX general design

User experience design is essential and has long been overlooked in enterprise until lately, as the focus services being designed for use and ease of use weren’t considered as needed when you could just send people to hours of training. But, with social offerings there are a lot of diverse elements that people are having to work through, besides how to get something done in a platforms or service. Good usable design with regular user research (prior to taking steps, as well as while designing potential options, and honing what is in place) helps take the rough edges off that get in the way of people using as well as understanding what a service does, and can do.

Social interaction design

General UX design isn’t enough with social platforms as there are a lot of interactions with the service and system, which is used to interact with others (which is difficult for many on its own). Understanding the design of social interactions (what is clicked and then what happens after it) so that the tools aren’t getting in the way, but also some of the rough edges of human social interactions are also eased is badly needed. There are broad options for buttons, forms, profiles, reactions, likes, etc. and social interactions designers work to understand what are the best fits for the contexts at hand and what the impacts will likely be with distinct user groups. User testing around social is a little different from general user testing as the situation requires working with a diversity of end points (people) at either end of what is put in place that need to be understood. Testing also needs to include various depth of use and maturity with the service. These help find a good fit in the social interaction design that works well.

Data analyst

Data analysts are essential to help understand benchmarks prior to starting down the path with social offerings, but also are needed to dig into the data to see how people are and aren’t using the services. Many platforms have decent data analysis, but it only scratches the surface and much better analysis is needed; particularly in larger solutions, more mature use environments, scaling, as well as those that have a diverse user segmentation. Social environments change drastically as they grow and act differently with more diversity as they scale. Data analysts should have good understanding of Social Network Analysis (SNA) / Organizational Network Analysis (ONA as well as many social analytics capabilities for seeing diversity, clustering, social scaling changes, etc. Having a solid data analyst helping with capturing the data that is needed, keeping privacy in mind, and slicing and making sense of the data with clarity has a big impact with what deeply matters in early stages and as use scales and matures.

Change management

Change management is not only essential for preparing organizations and people for a new service and offering, but deeply needed for the changes that come along with using these services. Digital social environments help enable normal networked social patterns that are well covered in Wirearchy as the shifts in ease of connecting in a digitally enabled networked environment can be disruptive. This is mostly in a positive way, but is not always perceived as positive if it is not known the changes may be coming. Helping people understand what the new services do and the needed mental models for working in this way are areas change managers can help with, as well as work with others around legal and compliance issues that need consideration.

Document management

Document management, with a solid understanding of social environments, helps with working through how to archive valuable content and conversations, but also how to ease finding and connecting to systems of record from inside a social offering. This connection needs to work in both directions, one is surfacing documents and resourceswell (within permissions guidelines, compliance, and connecting to the right / latest version), but also working out how to show the document or record is being discussed and used. This use activity around a record can be a valuable indicator that it may be getting updated, or caveats have surfaced that are valuable to all who view and need the record.

Social scientists (ethnographer, urban planner, sociologist, etc.)

The social scientists are often overlooked, but should be one of the first roles included. Social scientist, particularly those who have graduate school level of work, see social environments differently than most who don’t have that background (this may be a personal bias, but talking with others with similar background the “how was this essential understanding not seen” is a common phrase in reviewing social offerings). Social environments are under constant change and morph as (sub-)cultures intersect and social environments scale. The questions asked by social scientists, along with framings with models around how humans interact, while watching for conflict and the patterns that surface in constant change and are not seen are nothing less than essential. One of the common downfalls with social platforms is around they often don’t allow people to be social like humans are social. There is no better way to keep an eye out for that to mitigate for it, but also understand how humans are social at various scales than having social scientists involved.

Taxonomist/folksonomist

Taxonomies are essential for easily grouping information, conversations, and content and for helping people find relevant and related matter. But, language and mental models for what things are called and are related to are often far more diverse and emergent than taxonomies allow for, so embracing folksonomy is also essential for social environments. Having a taxonomist involved will help set categories and information structures in place that will enable the capability for solid finding and refinding. If that taxonomist also embraces folksonomies (and the service has the foundation for it) the ability to have emergent taxonomies that take less work to keep up to date than traditional taxonomies can happen. Also embracing folksonomy helps new ideas and mental models (these emerge through new members, training, cultural shifts, etc.) be included in the ease of finding and grouping of findable and refindable information.

Knowledge management

Knowledge managers seem to be in and out of fashion in organizations these days, but no matter what the rest of an organization believes having solid knowledge management as part of the social software team is essential. Early social platforms were around 20 years ago were being built on understandings for how knowledge is created and honed, as well as changes over time. The social platforms had issues, but the foundations in knowledge management are solid. The knowledge manager provide understanding in what the services need to capture knowledge and resurface it when needed. But, in social platforms the “who” around knowledge is helpful as well. Often there is more than one person with expertise who has honed a different dimension of a full understanding, so it isn’t just one answer that is sought and one expert, but likely a few or many.

Search specialist

With all of the conversation, content, information, and knowledge created, shared, and pointed to it doesn’t matter much if it can’t be found. Part of it getting found is helped by content managers and taxonomists / folksonomists, but search needs to be solid as well. Most platforms have search built in to their offerings, but evaluating if that search will suffice at various scales will need a search specialist. But, search in platforms is also often tied to other search systems and how those integrate to find, hold onto, and surface information, content, and resources takes solid search specialists to get right. A lot of information and resources inside an organization is difficult to find (not by intent, but it is trapped in systems that aren’t searched easily nor integrated well) and social environments often point to these resources and frame what is there, which enables that content and resource surface in searches. Your whole organizations gets smarter and has more available resources if the social environment and search is well matched.

Legal resources are often not thought of until it is late in the process. Working with lawyers to help understand compliance, privacy, security, and risks in general from a legal perspective. Working with a lawyer who can help understand not to just say this can’t be done, but how to meet compliance and other needs and still have a great service is an amazing benefit and one that saves budget and time down the road helping meet needs and provide a solid offering.

How to Fill These Roles

Yes, 14 roles isn’t something that is easy to fill. But, this doesn’t need to be 14 different people. By knowing what to look for a lot of roles can be found and covered by one individual. Knowing what you need, often at a little deeper level than the high level outlined here, and how it fits in to the team can help shape a team of 5 or 6 people, or who can move in and out of the team at various times to help provide the breadth and depth needed.

Also, many of these roles can be and are covered by vendors who are doing things well. As walked through in The One Social Way or Not to Doing Social Really Well in Enterprise user research and other skills are being covered on the product side. Understanding from vendors how they test with users (what types of users - domain, roles, skills, etc.), how they understand social models and social scaling, build taxonomies or enable co-existing folksonomy for emergent taxonomy, enable search and integrate with existing search, have open models for data analysis, etc. can help see what roles are still needed.

Many of these roles (even if they are covered on the vendor side) are really good to have in the evaluation and selection process as well, so having these roles in a review and strategy team up front is a really good idea as well.

These roles also can be filled by integrators. This is rather rare these days, with the exception of a few small boutiques who have approached their offerings for integration and consulting by filling gaps they regularly saw as well. Many integrators are strong on the technical side and today often have good general UX people, change managers, and search integrators, but other roles with more depth around social science and social interaction design is not a focus most have had nor have considered.

Between vendors, good integrators, consultants, strategists, and in-house resources and hires it shouldn’t be that difficult to get the 14 roles covered in one way or another now that you know to look for them.


Diversity of Enterprise Social Tools

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


One constant in the 20 years I've been working in and around organizations and their social platforms is lack of understanding of the diversity of tool types. Today that lack of understanding of the diversity continues, but the diversity and the dimensions in that diversity have increased. Since 2004 I've run workshops, given talks, written about this diversity and worked with a lot of organizations (and vendors) to better understand this diversity.

Most organizations learn about the complexity and diversity the hard way, when they realize one size doesn't fit all and trying to force that makes a mess. This starts a path of discovery, which starts with realization they need far better understanding.

This is a very high level breakdown of that tip of that understanding (features and functionality stated are not exhaustive, but used here to validate the differences). Over the years I have modified the names of the components in the diverse offerings based on need. Each of these components have different features and functionality along with different social interaction design models that map to the needs they are addressing.

Collective

The Collective social tools focus on gathering information and knowledge with an aim of being complete and having a full understanding. It is a tool type important for law firms, research and development, competitive assessment, brainstorming, general research, and more. Those people whom are participating are not necessarily focussed on others, but on capturing information and knowledge with a focus on completeness.

Collective services usually also have organizational capability for structure, categories, tagging, and sometimes curation. There can be discussion on or around elements in the service. There are often also alerts for new additions to collective area where one is participating. These services are not to be confused with general file storage services, which have different purposes and functionality.

Cooperative

The Cooperative (formerly I labelled this as community and then as team / group / community / network stack) focusses on sharing. This type of service is often considered "social" generically. The Group and Community levels are often the focus when talking about Enterprise Social Network (ESN) class of social offering. Across the cooperative services sharing, discussion, and interacting with others are the focus. But, there are different features and functionality and social interaction models at the different scales within the cooperative service dimension.

Team

The Team services in the Cooperative dimension focus on teams that are working together on a project. The Team services focus on relatively small groups up to around 15 or so members. The people know each other, or are getting to know each other, so have some comfort working out loud. Team focussed service include focus on tasks, responsibilities, progress, status, calendar, etc. in addition to sharing ideas, work, voting, and other common social interactions.

Many organizations try running teams in tools and services focussed on Group and Community dimensions, but find that is a really difficult fit as they are missing the core elements needed to for teams. Team focussed service are abundant and many organizations have more than one service focussed on Teams to fit diverse team work models in organizations. Team tools are also not intended to scale to large groups of people interacting and lack of features and functionality for larger scales are often not included.

Group

Group focussed services are aimed at subject focussed discussions and sharing of information and knowledge. Group services are often focussed to serve a few hundred or more in group spaces. Threaded discussions are common as well as the ability to tag within and sometimes across spaces.

Groups services also often focus on networked individuals and being able to follow not only subjects, but people. Group services are often used with a focus on knowledge and information capture and reuse.

Community

Community focussed services are aimed at scaling across an organization. Often service that focus here talk about these services as social intranets. Sharing of information in work related structures spaces and groups is the focus. Community services focus on keeping information up to date and current.

Community services tend to have some reflection of organizational structure and traditional departments (HR, product, sales, etc.) as well as subject focussed areas, like the Group services offer. Community services have broader reach, but often also have governance and compliance capabilities built-in or easy add-on services.

Network

The Network scale focusses not only to encompass everybody in an organization, but also service as a facility for working with trusted partners (consultants, contractors, business partners, and even customers). The working beyond the boundaries of the organization easily and how those relationships are set with boundaries of shared participation are a common focus.

The scaling for Network focussed services is a big focus. They can be tailored to follow supply chain and have open communication / sharing of events and discussion in-line with these services. Often the configurations can be broad, but often they don't do everything well, particularly where Teams and Group scale services focus. Permissions, federated spaces (more than one segment can own what is within a space).

Real Collaboration

Real Collaboration is where conflict, criticism, and diverse options worked through are common and required to get resolution. While other dimensions are focussed many views and breadth as a final result, the final result of collaboration is one output from the collaborative work of many. These services focus on working together openly in the creation, decision making, and have the capability to enable negotiation, mitigation, and decision capturing. Capturing decisions (what options are moving forward and what isn't selected) are essential in organizations that want to move quickly, intelligently, and efficiently. Often the decision of options not chosen and why are more valuable down the road that the what is selected as things change over time and knowing the other options and the reasoning for not selecting them can greatly reduce transition and iteration time to better hone a solution to changing realities.

Cooperation and Collaboration are not often clear, but Cooperation has many people working together in roles that coordinate efforts as the result of teams and other levels. But, Collaboration is work, ideas, approaches, and perspectives overlapping and need to be worked out which of them works best as part of the whole.

Sadly, this is a term used for many products, but the services do not remotely offer features and functionality that enable real collaborative creation, editing, nor working through and capturing all decision points.

Communication

This past year or two I went back to including Communication services (particularly open node where the communication is open to see over time, not closed node as in email where new participants to a group have not background of history not salient junctures) as they have become a category that stands alone again. General communication services can be targeted at teams, groups, or other larger scales, but are most common with smaller scale environments.

These services are the conversational glue around and between the different services. They can connect the various services and act as and umbrella for the other services as an aggregation point for streams to monitor, search, filter, and converse back into other services. Communication services focus on the conversation between individuals and groups in an open manner, but also serve as an alert system for what is going on inside other services.

Closing

This break down of the diversity into smaller actual dimensions, which may not have clear lines of distinction at time, is essential to understand. Focussing on getting the fit right for an organization requires understanding their gaps, needs, and problems they are hoping to address first (that often doesn't happen first as getting a poorly fit tool often is a good driver to understand values derived and where there are areas that must be addressed) before selecting and framing what a collection of tools that fit the diverse needs would look like.

This is just one of The Lenses in my Social Lenses workshop for clients and in groups (online and off). I will be offering a paid online workshop in the near future if you would like to learn more.


The One Year Club: A seven year review

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , ,


In 2008, or so, I would have semi-regular calls with a friend who was also doing social and collaboration consulting and advising. Stuart Mader and I would set aside 30 minutes or so to compare notes about our client work (these often lasted 2 to 3 hours). The common trait with our clients was most had purchased tools and services to roll out internal social platforms for their employees. Nearly all of those who came to us had their services and platforms up and running for a while, but at the 6 month to 18 month mark they started to realize all of this work was more than complicated, it was seriously complex. The customers and potential customers weren’t certain they had the right tool or platform for their environment and they needed help to better understand their actual needs, problems, and gaps.

This transition from the “social is simple” perception to “this is incredibly complex” Stuart called the “One Year Club”.

It was roughly in that one year window that the reality of what they were trying to do sunk in. When we would work with the clients and walk them through foundational questions and framings for the variety of models of social interactions (collective, team / group / community / network, and real collaboration) as well as other essential models (these foundations became my Social Lenses in late 2008, which are now up to 60+ lenses) the understanding and clarity of the state of things for them would become far more clear.

(Of the 60+ Lenses, there are 10 to 15 initial lenses for social I use in workshops and kick-off meetings that are part of 25 that are common lenses for social and general complexity filters that many engagements use or get considered. The remainder are used for situations as needed so to see through the fog of complexity. An updated view of the Lenses is likely to be posted here next.)

Is the One Year Club still relevant?

In recent client, potential client, and workshop attendee discussions over this past year the issues that were relevant in 2005 to 2010 that caused the One Year Club moniker to come to life and live on still exist. Nearly every engagement I have where I do either a high-level Lenses framing or a deeper workshop session all get the “we really needed this badly early on when we were trying to understand our problems and set requirements” response. All find something deeply valuable, that is becomes clear in the sessions, they need to focus on. At the same time most realize they may not have the right system for their needs. All find deep value in the sessions because they quickly identify improvements and efficiency gains, from the insights they see through the clarity of the Lenses that help them see through the fog of complexity. Many of these gains are helpful in the short term, but other find quick solutions to keep things going as they work through how to resolve their larger platform change needs.

Looking at things in the past year through all the discussions and reviewing the state of many of the platforms (particularly those that are relatively inexpensive, free, or included as a throw-in from vendors selling other products), not only is the One Year Club still valid, but may be broader reaching and in a worse state than the 2005 to 2010 stretch.

Why is the State of Things Worse?

First off, not everything is the same or worse. Some platforms continue to grow and evolve through maturing in ways that embrace the diversity of how humans are social and diversity patterns of how people work, Jive is one of those. There are also new entrants that have taken things like chat, (in most large organizations with Microsoft foundations Lync (now rebranding as Skype for Business) chat was claimed by many corporate IT departments as the second most used piece of software / service after email in the organization) and added solid functionality (ability to archive by default, including documents and linked objects, and use really good search across it all) and solid ease of integration that in a sense has been making “Slack is the Operating System” a truism for many. Another great asset that is available today is the Community Managers Roundtable that provides insights for managing a community and the skills for running, measuring, and keeping a community vibrant.

The trouble that lead to the One Year Club years ago was largely people under-estimating or not doing the needed due diligence. They was also a lack the understanding the regular and continual assessment need for the right fit of their offerings to the problems, needs, and gaps they were hoping to solve. This is often exacerbated by the lack of broadly and deeply framing the problems and potential outcomes up front. I covered some of this in my CMSWire piece “Finding Your Right Collaboration Fit” and a recent talk at 18F titled “Internal Social / Collaboration (Slideshare link)” (an 18F write-up of the talk "Imagining a water cooler for the digital age is also available, with links to a less than optimal quality video of the talk).

The basic understanding that tools matter is not only lost, but is often considered not relevant, until an organization gets to the point of needing core features and functionality that come with a maturing community (or other scaled classes - teams / groups / networks). They also find the platform they are on not only doesn’t provide those, but can’t be adapted as the foundation for the platform isn’t structured to handle mature needs. This all can be headed off up front though the use of Lenses to not only see the current state of things, but use of quick scenarios for what things will look like in one to three years as things scale and other potential realities come into relevance.

Another thing that makes today’s state of things more troublesome is the common existence of more than one platform being successfully used in organizations. With the onset of new services there is much more to think through, to potentially work into the fold. The new services can be targeted at niche areas that fit various workflows and mental models really well at a good price, or offer a drastically improved set of functionality or class of service (like chat), where it is bordering on a new class type. The One Year Club often considers shifting all of their team and group services from a platform that functions okay, to a chat service, rather than thinking about integrating and how that would work in their distinct environment. The One Year Club continually is considering jumping from one platform to another, which is not only not fungible, but of a completely different category / class of service. Often their core platform may not serve their needs, but is of a class or category where they have a need, but they also have other needs to be addressed as well.

This Does Get Better?

It not only can get better, it must get better.

The path to getting better is to understand and embrace complexity as a reality, as well as embrace adaption. One must also learn to see through the fog of complexity to more clearly see the problems, needs, and gaps as well as see the small pieces clearly with lenses so to overlay lenses to see the intersecting influences at work. This not only helps understand today’s needs and the short term, but helps with working through near future scenarios (one to three years, occasionally five year views) so to understand the shifts that may happen so we can make considered choices today, while also having adaptive solutions ready for the impending changes and shifts. This changes the state of things being seen from disruption (otherwise known as having little clue what is happening and not being prepared) to relatively easy adaption through understanding and being comfortable with change.


Shift Happened - Part 1: More Productive Not Using Productivity Tools

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Over the past six months or so, I’ve been increasingly hearing from IT leaders in organizations who have been surprised by a shift in how people work digitally. The work patterns related to this shift are far from new and, in fact, are well over a decade old.

Nonetheless, some have been surprised by who, why, and how broadly and rapidly the change is happening. Those caught by surprise are often in IT departments, and they are surprised by the changing work patterns of sales, teleworkers, and others in the field and away from the office. Looking at these shifts in detail, how those who are surprised by these shifts came to be surprised isn’t so surprising.

Productivity Happened

Over the past 3 to 4 years, there has been a shift in how people work. Advancements in mobile devices and applications is part of it, but the prevalence of touch tablets has been a large contributor to the change. The light weight and ability use them for much of users’ daily work makes tablets a relatively good choice for those working on the road or away from the office. Initially, many thought that not having Microsoft Office was going to be a hinderance for tablet use, but that has not been the case.

But, the same time touch tablets were becoming a largely viable option, how and where information and knowledge work was happening shifted too. Work was increasingly happening in online services where text and data was entered into an online service, often one with collaborative or social functionality. The daily report was no longer a document completed in Word and then uploaded; it is now text that is entered in a service that connects colleagues and team members who do follow-on work with that input. The conversations happens around the information and the content shared initially can be edited, commented on, and linked to externally.

Those in the field may not be online all the time, but they are collecting notes and information throughout their day, often doing so in small, lightweight, text-focused apps. The small writing apps often have Markdown as their means to add structure (structure replaced style), including headers, bold, italics, bullets, links (to web pages, online spreadsheets, images, or other). Markdown isn’t new and many of the online services people are using have handled Markdown text for years. Up to this point, Markdown had mostly been in the geek domain, but now sales folks, admins, field workers, and other traditionally non-tech-centric workers are using it as well.

Frequent users say that the 6 to 8 regular Markdown annotations (such as heading levels, bold, italics, links, and pull quotes) were quick and easy to learn. MS Word has nearly 200 functions in its ribbons these days, but many people use only 15 to 20 of those, and most often use 6 to 10, for which they use keystrokes. Yes, the common 6 to 10 most used and easily found Word functions map to those provided within Markdown. Many text apps have buttons for Markdown for user convenience.

This shift to simplified text focus (that doesn’t require Microsoft Word) has delivered quite a few benefits. The first is that it is incredibly easy to share contents and files with anybody, as there are no “I have the wrong version of Word” or “I copied it into my document and my document is now a mess” problems. The files sizes are also lightweight and easy to email or upload, even in environments with network bandwidth constraints. Most of their work is going to be copied into text boxes in an online system anyway, or, if folks are working in a Word Document, it will likely be parsed and turned into plain text, rich text, or HTML (things Markdown-related tools easily output as alternate options).

But, of all these small benefits, the largest is the increase in productivity. Many of those working in this manner, mostly because they were on devices that didn’t have Microsoft Word, found they were “far more productive outside their old productivity tools.” Nearly every person I have talked with who has watched this shift happen has uttered this statement or something very similar about productivity. Workers are no longer battling their tools (Office / Word), but are simply producing.

Shift Sneaks Up When You are Headsdown Building Past Models

Without exception, every person in IT who has tracked me down to have this discussion (with the aim of finding out if they are alone and how to start thinking about it), is coming out of a very long SharePoint implementation. They were heads down on their (initially) 2 to 4 month Sharepoint project, that ended up being an order of magnitude longer, more expensive, and larger in scale and scope than expected, so they didn’t see this shift happening.

Often, these folks in IT were pointed in my direction by someone in a different division within the organization who I talked with or worked with on collaborative and social working projects to support their needs. These systems and services provide the text boxes into which their workers were pasting text from their tablet text-writing apps. Their work and work models shifted drastically while IT was heavily focused on a solution that wasn’t solving needs for large portions of the organization.

IT really wasn’t aware of this shift until they went to renew their Microsoft Office licenses and were being moved to Office 365, which seemed like it was going to meet the online working needs of the systems they had been asked to deliver years back. What IT was not expecting was that 25% to 40% (or, as I have been hearing over the past couple weeks, 60%) of their workers, many of whom are working out in the field or virtually, refuse to go back to using Office (often voicing this refusal loudly and strongly). IT found they had paid for seats that wouldn’t be used, an incredibly expensive proposition. Office 365 can be justifiable to many when it is being used, but to sit unused is another story. The senior IT folks have been saying their percentage of workers shifting to this new (Office-free) model is going up by 2% each month, as means of working more easily and efficiently in other ways spreads (e.g. 25% in April 2013 to 27% in May 2013).

More Productive Not Using Productivity Tools

This big shift relates to the fact that traditional productivity tools weren’t based on efficient productivity. Most standard productivity tools grew from a paper-based model and world moved to the digital world. As work has largely changed from passing documents around to posting and working on content in more open collaborative and group environments that align with what our modern work has became, the model of a “doc” disappeared. The document as an object was the focus of the “system of record,” but now, in a “systems of engagement” model, focus is on the milestones met and status marker activities in the online collaborative, collective, and team (including group / community / network) interaction systems.

Tools that got in the way of productivity and didn’t meet needs as people began to work more interactively in digital-focused and digital-appropriate environments are no longer the default tools of choice. We are working a little more like humans interact naturally and having technology adapt to these ways of working, rather than making humans learn a lot about how to adapt to traditional technology to do their work.


Shift Happened Series


Coming Out of Hiatus

by Thomas Vander Wal in , ,


Things have been a bit quiet here, but many changes on this side of the screen are settling and allowing idea and writing focus.

One of the things I am pulling together are my columns from KM World on Personal Knowledge Management (it unintentionally went into hiatus at the same time). One of the great things about writing for KM World was after a set time I have the rights to my own writing to do with as I wish.

Social Lenses Workshop

Also, those of you interested in the Social Lenses I have a half day workshop offered on April 3, 2013 in Baltimore at the IA Summit Workshop: Using social lenses to see social dimensions. The only way beyond our current less than optimal state of social software and service offerings is to see it differently, distinctly, and more deeply.


Beyond Simple Social Presentation

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


We have been here before.

Where we are with social tools in organizations has been done before and not overly well. But, where we are today is a place we have been twice before in my working career. We had groupware and knowledge management tools in this same spot. Similar promise and similar success both right here.

Where are we?

We are at the inflection point in social software where we need to get beyond the simple social mindset. The groupware and knowledge management waves of social software were damaged at this same point and lost. There are many reasons for this, but one of the biggest issues and one we are facing now is the ever difficult task of designing tools that embrace how complicated and complex social interactions are with humans as social beings and how that gets more complicated and complex as it scales.

On May 30th (2012) I gave an updated version of my Beyond Simple Social talk at a Salesforce.com sponsored UX Lecture Series (slides down below and Uday Gajendar's great live blog of the talk). The talk sold out quickly and was filled with not only Salesforce.com UX people, but people from other vendors and companies and it was user experience people, product managers, engineers, and customers managing various platforms and services. One thing that seems to have been the common thread is the how do we build social tools to broader user base and that meet that easy to use interface on top of ever increasing complicated and complex systems and services.

This simplicity in the interface is the great advantage the current wave of social software has had, the tools mostly get out of the way, or far more so than in the past. The tools are usable and relatively easy to use, up to a point.

What the talk focusses on is seeing the breadth, depth, and interwoven complexities of the social elements that each have depth and their own focal points as distinct items or lenses. The talk uses the getting beyond simple social as a gateway to the 40+ social lenses I have been building upon and use in my work with customers of social tools as well as vendors to help optimize the use and experience of the tools to meet needs and help remove hinderances to use.

The last six to nine months the group of people in roles I see most often running into the short falls of social tools in organizations are those in UX roles (interaction design, information architecture, usability, user interface design, and the rare social interaction designers). Why? They are the ones that get called upon to fix the tools or service as there are many complaints it is unusable. They are the ones whose pants catch on fire when things do not go as expected. They are the ones who get called in to “make it work”, but often they can only do so much with a tool or service that was not a good match or was bolt together solution bought under the premise it can be assembled to do everything. If you want to find the reality of how things work, find the UX people to see how gamification is working (or most often has made a mess of formerly functional communities in organizations), various tools are capable of being made usable, which services are easy to optimize for use, and how adaptable a service is across an organization with a broad collection of user types.

But, it is also the UX folks and those whom they report to that are finding what is needed to think through social software problems is not robust enough nor flexible enough to help them see the problems and work through them. The social understandings and complexities are often missing from their toolsets and rarely exist anywhere else in the organization, unless it is a firm with social science chops in-house for some reason.

As a whole the industry around these social tools needs to understand it is at a precipice (some organizations and vendors grasp this really well) of this first stage of social that previous waves have not been able to get beyond. But, once understanding where we are the real work, the freaking hard work begins and we need to be able to see differently, more focussed than we have in the past, and be able to intermix these focussed views to understand what we are really dealing with so we can make it to stage two, three, four, and beyond.

This is the reasoning I have been focusing on the social lenses and those using some of them has been able to see differently and beyond the problems to solutions to try and iterate or more to others. Seeing Dave Gray’s Connected Company book progress helps me know there is value, as he is the only person to have gone through the full set of social lenses, to which the connected company was part of the outcome.

Dave Gray’s writing around Connected Company and JP Rangaswami’s writings on this blog (particularly lately again) about the new collaboration are fantastic and are on their way to happening. Yet, we need to ensure the tools and services that enable them are there and usable for all.


Presenting "Beyond Simple Social" In SF May 30th

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , ,


I am presenting "Beyond Simple Social" at Salesforce in San Francisco on Wednesday, May 30. Please join us - Eventbright free ticket.

Interfaces for social software are simple. But designing, developing and managing social platforms is not.

I will present some of the lenses he uses to help companies increase user adoption and engagement by better understanding the complexities around social software.


Urban Planning to Social Business: Social that Scales

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , ,


Overview


In November of 2011 Gordon Ross and I presented What Urban Planning Can Teach Us About Social Business Design at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara (the presentation is loaded at the end of this post). I was excited about the presentation as it was a great opportunity to place the foundations of understanding social at scale into the Enterprise 2.0 / social business community (Stewart Mader and I have done this in the past as part of the One Year Club presentations).

A background of a masters in public policy 16 plus years ago gave me a great foundation for understanding social at scale through analytics and analysis, but also it primed me for all the “for fun” reading I did after graduation in urban planning and taking it to nice depths that professional tomes offered to get solid understandings. In 2004 I met up with a small group of designers and developers who were swimming in the flow of social software and found one of the very common traits across the group was many years of reading the same urban planning, urban theory, and and architecture books, which gave them a leg up on understanding how humans interact at scale. Until that point I hadn’t drawn the line connecting urban planning and the designing, developing and managing collaboration and social software services beginning in 1996. The presentation begins to tap into that understanding and where has grown to.

Gordon's did a great job with a write-up of his portion of the presentation, in his ThoughtFarmer blog post E2Conf Santa Clara 2011 – What Urban Planning Can Teach Social Business Design. This is my portion of the write-up, or the a part of the slides from 53 to 72. I’ve written before about Social Scaling and Maturity as well as Dave Snowden's Complexity Framework Cynefin, so I am starting beyond those related portions I haven't written about before.

Social Scaling

When considering social systems of any type it is important to understand what scale of social system you are dealing with. There are many decades of studying human social interactions at various scales and most of this focus has been using the lens of the city. Social software scaling and maturity captures a high level view of how it progresses, but this was influenced in part by how human settlements grow and their traits. The progression takes from small settlements with a few people, families, and businesses or farms labelled hamlets, up through villages, towns, and to cities.

Hamlets

Hamlets are small clusters of people in a location. The order of interactions between people is driven by need for protection, human social interactions, sharing or pooling resources, and common connections to the world that is farther away. There is little central infrastructure to begin with other than some paths that have emerged through use, likely a common natural resource that is shared (water, food source, etc.), and often a central place to meet (even if it is somebody's barn or other shelter large enough to have this collection of people to gather. The leaderships is most often ad hoc and is a person whom is comfortable gathering people, asking questions, and resolving issues.

In hamlets everybody knows everybody else very well. There is no hiding and what one person does may impact others directly. Social interactions are all rather simple.

Villages

The village is a larger collection of people gathered in a place. Villages have some infrastructure developing for roads, sanitation, distribution of resources (water, food, etc.), and often have a designated meeting place that is set aside for that purpose. There is a more formalized leadership framework, sometimes just by name but often by roles performed as well, whom people turn to for protection, resolving differences, and helping with making decisions about infrastructure related needs. Most people know of each other, but may not know everybody well.

This familiarity often keeps the common social model focussed on cooperation to get things done at the village wide scale. Often things can still be serendipitous as word of mouth networks still function well. Often the social interactions are still simple, but they are moving to being complicated.

Towns

Towns are the next step up in scale for human settlements. Towns have grown far beyond the first hamlet and have infrastructure needs that have become formalized and have the need for people to have roles related to servicing those infrastructure needs. Infrastructure for the town’s own needs may include: Roads; Sanitation; Health; Schooling; Protective services (fire and policing); Communication; Zoning and planning; etc. There is a formal central leadership role that has its own support system as well as responsibility to ensure the other infrastructure and support roles are functioning well.

The human social interactions have grown beyond the ability to know everybody. There is often a common central communication function that is central to the town for news. The ability to find others who can provide services or help is more difficult and word of networks do not work optimally to find resources and often do not work reliably at all. The ideal of cooperation is not longer the only social interaction model as competition and variations between cooperation and competition are in existence as commerce and friendly rivalries are used to optimize services and goods provided. These variations of governance, civic interaction, and social philosophies all move beyond the ability to function on the simple cooperation model.

The social model is complicated in that it takes a mix of cooperation and coordination for changes, but also to keep things running well.

Cities

Cities are the largest scale for local human settlements (there are megacities and other variations of scale beyond, but the differences are not as large as these and start getting into massive complexity and interdependencies). Cities require common infrastructure that is rather well maintained (well-maintained varies wildly depending where you are in the globe). Not only do cities have all of the central infrastructure resources and role, but they often have their own infrastructures and internally growing support roles. For example there is a fire department with many fire houses and their own jurisdictions with a central office and many roles there to fill in the gaps to ensure things get done and work as they should.

The human social interactions often scale to where people believe they may not be seen (well seen by those whom they know or know them) and are not familiar to many others around them. More granular distinctions are used to help people connect and have belonging and familiar social interactions. Cities require coordination for many social interactions at scale to take place and see things happen. Cooperation happens at the very small social scale, but often runs up against competition for resources and access from neighboring subsections of the city that drive it to coordination as the scaled social interaction model.

Cities function in complex social models. Gone is the regular ease of change with no impact on others. The ideal of cooperation is lost as there many different influences and pressures of the needs of other individuals and more often the needs and movement of groups that inhabit as well as run the city collide as their goals collide and conflict, even when trying to service the same purpose or goal.

Urban Planning at Scale

Differing urban scales have very different needs and realities around infrastructure, roles, social interaction design patterns and models that work or are needed. The small hamlet is often a focus, but the hamlet and its rather simple elements starts to become a limited model from which to view things with just a few hundred people. In cities this starts breaking at the one to two block boundaries. The village stage of growth and density, which kicks in with a few hundred people up to a the low thousands is often a good model to consider as a starting place (when considering social scaling for organizations the few hundred bounds hold up, if people are all in one location, but as soon as one or more additional locations are introduced the model looks a lot like the next step up to village with the complications that are introduced with the non-unified culture, multiple experiences and needs.

Urban Planning at Village Scale: Santana Row

Jumping in to the village perspective on social scaling, a good neat and clean view is that of Santana Row in San Jose, California. Santana Row is a 3 by 5 block grid of new urbanism mixed use and walkable planning (one of many of efforts by Federated Realty). It is a highly designed community that is an oasis or aberrant outlier in the whole of San Jose city, depending on one’s perspective. As stated by Gordon Ross' wife, “it is a great place to walk around if you drive there”.

Santana Row heavily proscribed design of space and use focusses the ground floors of the 3 to 5 story building to stores and restaurants and the upper floors for office and living space. It could be viewed as quasi-self supporting (lacking industrial and agricultural elements) for the roughly 1,000 people who live/work there. This village has a strong central management that proscribes use, design, and development of what happens in the bounds of the 3 by 5 grid bounds. It is not designed for emergence other than varying occupants of the spaces, which can be somewhat flexible, but it is largely held with in the already defined bounds.

As more natural social environs can grow, morph, and be emergent at, within, and beyond its initial bounds this planned village is less emergent and flexible. Use is constrained, for good or bad, by the heavily designed space. It is a social space that has set infrastructure, use, and size constraints that keep the development functioning with the same of similar vibe and experience across time.

Urban Planning at City Scale: San Francisco

If we take a quick drive up North of San Jose to San Francisco we can see social at a very different scale. San Francisco is home to 750 to 800 Santana Row by size and population. The map of San Francisco neighborhoods
C747bc65a85b7a2994df13f9fd2608bd (found at Justinsomina site) allows for some comparison with Santana Row. But, in a city the bounds between neighborhoods and sub-neighborhoods are drastically emergent and flexible over time. Even neighborhoods change drastically over time, just as the Hayes Valley neighborhood (a sub-neighborhood of the Haight) did after the 1989 earthquake and particularly after the freeway that bisected the neighborhood came down.

But, lets look at the center of this map and still at the Haight as a focus. The Haight as it is framed in this map is likely to contain 8 to 10 distinct neighborhoods with in it. Each of these neighborhood has its own feel and vibe as well as its own norms of acceptable business and behavior. The cultures of these neighborhoods can be vastly different, even as they abut other bounding neighborhoods.

The Haight contains the relatively famous Upper Haight, also known as the Haight Ashbury neighborhood that tries to keep its hippy culture mixed with the gentrified “painted lady” Victorian homes (some converted to multi-unit properties). Tie-dye and 60s hippy values are still at the forefront of this neighborhood’s feel and ethos.

Just down the hill from the Haight Ashbury is Lower Haight which is a mix of counter culture shops and establishments that mix with housing developments and through the 90s was known as the anarchist section of the Haight. There are no chain stores and there is a edge that is nearly tangible.

Heading up toward the Sutro Tower from the Haight Ashbury on Cole Street we are in Cole Valley, which is more family focussed than the Haight Ashbury and Cole Street has a mix of artisanal shops, restaurants, and bars. The family feel and more upscale offerings and comfortable places to hang out give it a different culture and values that what is found on Haight Street that it abuts just a few blocks away.

From Cole Valley we can head up Parnassus to the edge of the Inner Sunset neighborhood that houses UCSF Medical Center and a family and professional resident focussed neighborhood. The storefronts, restaurants, and living spaces all reflect this need and environment.

Small Neighborhoods Interwingled

What all of this gets to is a neighborhood framed in San Francisco with 15,000 to 100,000 people can have many smaller very divergent neighborhoods with in it. These neighborhoods have distinct culture, feel, and norms from what is proper activity and commerce for the sub-classification that may only be a few blocks by a few blocks. There are no firm borders and the boundaries are very fluid and intermix and intertwingle with ease. We know Cole Valley and the Haight Ashbury and Lower Haight are very different neighborhoods with interleaving boundaries and often with sub-neighborhoods emerging between them our of nothing.

All of this is emergent and at least complicated, but very much is a vivid description of complexity expressed and at play in the real world. The emergent and adaptive nature of cities, often with a very light hand of guidance (but in cases of Detroit and its massive contraction of population a more heavy hand can be a benefit). But, this reality helps us greatly understand the need for better understanding of human social environments at scale. We know that what works in one neighborhood will often not work in another neighborhood with out adapting it. Some neighborhoods in cities have strong neighborhood associations (some of these small active forces can change the whole of a city - see Harvey Milk (if you have time watch Milk) to get a better grasp of this at work).

As seen in the framing of physical spaces and the needs of the scaling social organization and infrastructure needed to support social scaling there are a wide variety of roles, support systems, different tools and disciplines (police, sanitation/waste, fire, health, property, finance, etc.), and central management roles for understanding as well as providing sane growth and adapting. In the time since 1996 when I started managing digital communities professionally, I started realizing and framing different social roles that were needed or at play and now have 20 I have framed and consider when dealing with social platforms and environments (see slide #64 in the presentation for the list of 20).

Social Business Software is Stuck at Simple

Given this realization that we have a variety of social scaling realities from out frame of looking at cities and other scale of human aggregation and organization in physical space, we can use the same lens to look at our own digital social environments. Most of our tools for social interaction and collaboration at best have two social roles, user and admin/community manager. The tools and ease of capabilities just are not there in many tools to help organizations using the tools beyond these simple roles.

Our tools are stuck at the Santana Row stage and are not easily emergent, adoptive, nor scale easily to more expansive realities. If the tool fits for one segment of the organization it is rolled out for more, whether or not their interest, needs, culture, or personality fits with in the designed constraints of a digital Santana Row. Our tools and services need to take the next step up to moving beyond the hamlet and village mentality of small, single focussed considerations.

A question that is always asked of me is what is the magic number for where these tools break and there is a need. The answer lies in understanding the essential variables: Cultural deviation, size, and location. If your organization has tight cultural norms and is rather unified in its view a simple social model can go rather far. Along this front how your organization handles when things do not go optimally (also state when things fail). The tighter the organization the greater a single or limited variance platform will take you. If you organization is rather accepting of things not going right and can turn problems into powerful lessons learned a single platform can scale. If the organization broadly doesn’t have good failure tolerance the scale of the service will be more limited, unless there are small comfortable spaces where ideas can be shared, vetted and honed before taking them broader. If the organization has no consistent way for dealing with failure or less than optimal outcomes a single simple platform will not go very far at all.

The size of your organization is another important variable. The larger the organization the greater the need for an adaptive multi-role and use services or collection of services. Few organizations can get away with a single approach with more than 3,000 to 5,000 people. There are some organizations that over time can get a very simple service to work across 15,000 or more. But, most often the tools start showing difficulty in the mid to upper 100s.

The last element is location. If your organization is all in one location or in very close proximity the ability for a simple tool to work at higher numbers of people using it is better, if the culture is consistent. Once you have more than one location things get more difficult as culture, norms, constraints, and other elements that impact use and consistency get strained. Think if a 400 unit high rise apartment building and the relative cohesion of community within that building, but another building next to it of the same or similar size can be quite different.

Social Scale Models

Another framing to think about this is simple social is two simple blocks resting next to each other sharing a side. The interaction point is just one common boundary and this simple difference is rather easy to maintain and interact along.

The complicated social model is a grid. The grid is working to balance the needs of needs around four different sides and how to balance the needs all around. The grid can be broken down in to rather straight forward interactions at the intersections of on the various sides, as long as those with whom they are interacting are staying relatively consistent.

Lastly, the complex is a fractal model that is always moving and the interactions are constantly shifting and each of the bounds are heading in a different direction and putting pressure and influence on those boundary elements it touches and interacts.

Next Steps

Where we often get with social tools and services inside organizations are a need for something beyond what we have. For a very long time social software has been framed through the lenses of understanding of social at scale. The common metaphors and framing echo some of the human social interactions used in the world around us that do not have mediated interfaces and services as the means of interacting.

Our tools and services need take the next step to getting beyond the simple social models were working in and around. The understanding of these next steps and there real existence can and will help shape how are tools can grow to meet our needs of social at scale and understand what is missing and needed to help people interact and be more efficient in their worklife. The individuals can get more out of this, but so with the organizations.

We have had 20 years or more of social software and collaborative tools now in its 3rd generation of services (KM, groupware, and now Enterprise 2.0/social business based on Web 2.0 principles) that we have dealt with and are living with. We have abandoned previous attempts as far less than optimal because the tools got in the way of how humans are social and did not allow for social scaling well. This current cycle has one hell of a lot of hope tied into is as the tools do a much better job of getting out of the way. Our next step is to start getting this still hopeful practice to embrace the understandings of social scaling.

Are you up for it? I am.


Cooperation, Coordination, and Competition

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , ,


There has been a lot of discussion of late in the social media circles about cooperation and how all social tools and services and their managers need to embrace that model. What is really clear is they have never run or tried to run social environments at any scale that have a broad representation of a population.

In reality there are at least three interactive community types that show up in representative populations, like those you get in a town or a city, or an organization’s internal social platforms. The three interactive community types are: 1) Cooperation; 2) Coordination, and 3) Competition. These three all work in tension with each other. In smaller social settings you will likely run into cooperation and it can work swimmingly. But, the reason that it works so well is there are likely not differences of opinion, different, motivations, and counter purposed goals.

As any social setting grows in size the cohesion and common interests (homogeneity) are diluted with other inters and motivations, just as a hamlet grows into a village, they ease of cooperation moves into the dire need for coordination. As we move to towns or cities, or larger organizations with more than a few hundred people or across more than one location coordination is needed. Cooperation is often quite easy with small groups, but even getting more than two or three small groups to work easily coordination is needed as the ease, and often the pure ability, of cooperation is gone and there needs to be concerted effort and guidance applied through coordination. There can be coordination through agreement as much as their can be coordination through difference. The skills needed for those polar realities are different, but the ability to listen, negotiate, mitigate, and coerce is needed.

The underlying tension is related to competition, which run very strong in certain personality types, but also in various industries. The social interaction designs for competitive personalities are very different from cooperative or those who are comfortable in coordinated models. But, nearly all populations have some representation (small or large) of people (or organizations) who are highly competitive. Thinking that in a social environment, unless it is small and focussed, our community or social interactions are going to be purely cooperative is a bit naive and crazy (or a great way to go crazy quickly).

It really takes understanding humans social interactions at scale and working in them for a few years to see the realities. Humans are as diverse as they are similar and there is no generalizing how humans behave with out understanding the variety of social types (personality, social interactions, social roles, organizational types, and work role types among others). Talk with any organization of any size (above a few hundred people or even one hundred people with more than one location) and you see the difficulties of finding one solution and one way forward.


40 Plus Social Lenses

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , ,


Lately, I've been getting asked what I am working on beyond client work, as there have been things popping up here and there that hint something is brewing. Well, there is and there isn’t something new, but something (one of my things has been drawing my attention). It started in Summer or early Fall 2010 with a blow off comment from me to someone else who was stating how difficult working with 3D was, and I blurted something like “try social software, which is 6D or 7D or more”. That was tweeted as an overheard (OH) and people started asking what the 6D or 7D were. At the time I blurted it I could roughly name six of seven different dimensions of social interaction that needed to be considered and design for. But, with each stating of the six or seven, the list started growing. This list of six of seven dimensions were coming from the frameworks, models, and lessons learned I have picked up since 1996 working with social software inside organizations and out on the web. By late October I was finally putting these social elements I used into a list, which quickly was into 20 high-level items and by November was about 40 items. I was also fleshing out the list for each item. I started calling the list my “40 Plus Social Elements”, but recently I have changed it to “40 Plus Social Lenses” as that is a much better term for how I have been using them over the past 15 years to see the “it depends” inflection points and enable thinking through them.

This is Needed?

Nearly every organization I talk to (or even web start-up working for on social interactions) I talk to is getting stuck or is hitting things they hadn’t expected a few months into their use with these tools. It does not matter if it is a platform improve internal communications and collaboration, a social CRM program, and/or a social media (marketing) effort everybody seems to be running into issues they did not see coming. Often I will start by asking how they are dealing with something (based on program type and tools) and I hear, “How did you know we had this problem? Who did you talk to?” They affirm they have these issues, some are manageable and at times they are really problematic. But, the big question is why did they not know these issues could arrive or would potentially arise. I have kept these lenses separate for years, rather than building into one big approach as each organization or services is different enough and has different enough influences that it is really tough to have one big singular approach. Taking small steps, monitoring, and then adapting or iterating is a really helpful approach, but so are mixing and matching lenses to get an improved perspective. Building solutions that address needs and having an overall big vision are helpful. Most often with social tools is it a more connected and free flowing means of doing things.

Lessons Learned

The continual problem for anybody who has been responsible for long-term management of social systems and/or communities who use them, development, design, and/or iteration of social software solutions is painfully confronted with, “is what I am seeing happen (often framed as a problem or issue to be solved) an issue with individual people, how humans are social, the culture(s) where the system is being used, the organization's needs and requirements or structure, or the tools themselves that are being used?” Often the answer is “yes”. These personal, social, organizational, and tools issues all interweave and quickly create a complicated, if not complex system where isolation of individual elements is really difficult. There is also a counterweight to this, which is we know that for use and adoption of these tools and services they need to be simple to use and get started (it doesn't mean they need to stay that way, Lithium's Community Platform is wonderful proof of this model and a I really need to devote a piece to why as it isn't plainly seen by most).

This thinking really started jelling in 2004 at Design Engaged with Mike Kuniavsky's lead-off monologue on complexity, which in his 10 minutes he focussed on the complexity in interaction design and urged us to “run toward the light of complexity”. This is an essential understanding for interaction design as the designer is working to make things that are rather complicated yet rather simple to use, which requires the designer to embrace the complicated and complex to master it so to work to make it simple. Where interaction design hits the individuals and their interaction with systems, social interaction design adds more layers with people interacting with others through the tools, which can be rather complicated just on its own and now you are throwing software in the middle. In 2007 or so I hit another big wake up call. I was working on the folksonomy book (no, it didn't get published, nor finished being written) and a couple months in I hit a sticking point. What I found was many of the common social models and foundations for Web 2.0 couldn’t explain the strong value that people were finding in places where Web 2.0 thinking would not lead one to believe it existed, nor could it explain the problems that I was repeatedly seeing. It took 12 or more months of deconstructing and reassembling the Web 2.0 models, the lessons I learned from years working with and building social software, as well as my formal education (in communication theory, organizational communication, grad school with economics, and social analytics) to identify the variables and components that had value and then build frameworks for thinking how this worked and why. I have blogged many of these as well have been presenting them publicly as well as using them in workshops and client engagements. They have proven to be really valuable, with feedback from many that is has saved them tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost avoidance and value derived from improved decisions.

What is This List of Lenses?

The list is essentially what I have been using and building upon for 15 years dealing with social software and the hurdles and headaches that can come from it. These 40 plus lenses (sometimes nearly 50) are questions, models, and frameworks I use when working with clients or in workshops. I hadn’t realized there were as many elements in the list as I often work conversationally and one answer from a client will trigger 2 or 5 more questions that are relevant based on that answer or insight. This progression gives better understanding not only to me, but also to them to see potential options, the possible benefits as well as possible detractors, and then think through them sanely. Knowing potential problems or issues, helps keep an eye out for them and be prepared, all while using lenses to know that these decisions may bring.

I have shared the list with some others with quite long backgrounds in social software on production, management, or research sides and all (well not the researchers) have the first response of, “Thomas, you are over thinking this there is no way there are that many.” But, as they go through the list they often find all of it is very familiar and things they think through and consider as well so to help their organizations, services, or clients. Many of us have built up this trove of tacit knowledge and I'm working on making it more explicit.

Where I am finding the list is having value is using the components as lenses to see the “it depends” inflection points and be able to think through them to solid results that match each organization as best as possible. Often there isn’t an optimal solution, but knowing a gap exists and to keep an eye on it has made a huge difference for organizations as well as those building products.

The list is still in flux a little but, but it is firming up and getting it organized in to a nice flow will help. Once that is done it is writing time. I have been presenting many of the items on the list in workshops and in client engagements and honing the understanding and getting solid feedback from real experience and use over the years.

I have been having many discussions around the list and thinking that is behind them, which has surfaced in Dave Gray's Connected Company and a Gordon Ross’ post on Connected companies, complex systems, and social intranets. There is good thinking and understanding that is needed so we can get more value and better understanding out of social software used in organization and on the web, but importantly it can help the products and services improve as well.

There are quite a few posts around here that are included in the lenses as part of them or the whole of a lens:

What am I Doing with This List?

What I am doing with this list of lenses has been a big question. The list very quickly started looking like a book outline, so I am taking steps in that direction. Presenting on this, I have been using a lot of these lenses in presentations for the last 8 years and mix and match them based on subject of the presentation. Dave Gray has put together a really good presentation on the Connected Company that I have helped with and will be presenting that puts a nice wrapper around the ideas. But, being able to get the full list of lenses in front of people and help them use them practically, I think may be best done in a workshop model. I have done internal workshops using many of these lenses (I get very positive feedback about how much this has benefitted organizations and has saved them from selecting tools that didn't fit their needs and/or helped them realize they had a gap in their approach they had not foreseen), but I have yet to put one on that are open to the public. If there is interest in public workshops I have the material and they would likely be a two day for a full view and use, but also could be a one day intensive seminar approach. Please contact


The Come To Me Web

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , , , , , , , , ,


Until May of 2005 I had trouble with one element in my work around the Model of Attraction and Personal InfoCloud (including the Local and Global InfoClouds as well) to build a framework for cross-platform design and development of information and media systems and services. This problem was lack of an easy of explaination of what changes have taken place in the last few years on the web and other means of accessing digital information. In preparing for a presentation I realized this change is manifest in how people get and interact with the digital information and media.

This change is easily framed as the "Come to Me" web. The "Come to Me" web, which is not interchangeable with the push/pull ideas and terms used in the late 90s (I will get to this distinction shortly). It is a little closer to the idea of the current, "beyond the page" examinations, which most of us that were working with digital information pre-web have always had in mind in our metaphors and ideologies, like the Model of Attraction and InfoClouds.

The I Go Get Web

Before we look at the "Come to Me" web we should look at what preceded it. The "I Go Get" metaphor for the web was the precursor. In this incarnation we sought their information. The focus was on the providers of the content and the people consuming the information (or users) were targeted and lured in, in the extreme people were drawn in regardless of a person's interest in the information or topic covered. The content was that of the the organization or site that provided that information.

This incarnation focussed on people accessing the information on one device, usually the desktop computer. Early on the information was developed for proprietary formats. Each browser variant had their own proprietary way of doing things, based around a few central markup tags. People had to put up with the "best view with on X browser" messages. Information was also distributed in various other proprietary formats that required software on the device just so the person could get the information.

The focus providing information was to serve one goal (or use) reading. Some of this was driven by software limitations. But it was also an extension of information distribution in the analog physical space (as opposed to the digital space). In the physical space the written word was distributed on paper and it was consumed by reading (reuse of it meant copying it for reading) and it took physical effort to reconstruct those words to repurpose that information (quoting sources, showing examples, etc.).

The focus was on information creation and the struggle was making it findable. On the web there were only limited central resources used to find information, as many of the search engines were not robust enough, did not have friendly interfaces. Findability was a huge undertaking, either to get people what they desired/needed or to "get eyeballs".

Just as the use of the information was an extension of the physical realm that predated the digital information environment, the dominant metaphor in the "I Go Get" web was based in the physical realm. We all designed and developed for findability around the navigation/wayfinding metaphor. This directly correlates to going somewhere. Cues we use to get us to information were patterned and developed from practices in the physical world.

Physical? Digital? Does it Matter?

You ask, "So what we used ideas from the physical world to develop our metaphors and methodologies for web design and development?" We know that metaphors guide our practices. This is a very good thing. But, metaphors also constrain our practices and can limit our exploration for solutions to those that fit within the boundaries of that metaphor. In the physical realm we have many constraints that do not exist in the digital realm. Objects are not constrained by the resources they are made from (other than the energy to drive digital realm - no power no digital realm). Once an object exists in the digital realm replicating them is relatively insignificant (just copy it).

Paths and connections between information and objects is not constrained by much, other than humans choosing to block its free flow (firewalls, filtering, limiting access to devices, etc.). Much like Peter Merholz desire lines where people wear the path between two places in a manner that works best for them (the shortest distance between two points is a straight line). Now, don't think of the physical limitation between two points, I need to go from my classroom on the fourth floor of building "X" to across campus, up the hill to the sixth floor office of my professor. Draw a straight line and walk directly. This does not work in physical space because of gravity and physical impediments.

Now we are ready to understand what really happens on the web. We go from the classroom to our professors office, but we don't move. The connection brings what we desire to us and our screen. In this case we may just chat (text or video - it does not matter) with the professor from our seat in the classroom (if we even need to be in the classroom). Connections draw objects to our screens through the manifestation of links. As differently as people's minds work to connect ideas together, there can be as many paths between two objects. Use of physical space is limited by limitations outlined in physics, but the limitations are vastly different in digital space, use of the same information and media has vastly different limitations also.

It is through breaking the constraints of old metaphors and letting the digital realm exist that we get to a new understanding of digital information on the networks of the digital realm, which include the web.

The Come to Me Web

The improved understanding of the digital realm and its possibilities beyond our metaphors of the physical environment allows us to focus on a "Come to Me" web. What many people are doing today with current technologies is quite different than was done four or five years ago. This is today for some and will be the future for many.

When you talk to people about information and media today they frame it is terms of, "my information", "my media", and "my collection". This label is applied to not only information they created, but information they have found and read/used. The information is with them in their mind and more often than not it is on one or more of their devices drives, either explicitly saved or in cache.

Many of us as designers and developers have embraced "user-centered" or "user experience" design as part of our practice. These mantras place the focus on the people using our tools and information as we have moved to making what we produce "usable". The "use" in "usable" goes beyond the person just reading the information and to meeting peoples desires and needs for reusing information. Microformats and Structured Blogging are two recent projects (among many) that focus on and provide for reuse of information. People can not only read the information, but can easily drop the information into their appropriate application (date related information gets put in the person's calendar, names and contact information are easily dropped into the address book, etc.). These tools also ease the finding and aggregating of the content types.

As people get more accustom to reusing information and media as they want and need, they find they are not focussed on just one device (the desktop/laptop), but many devices across their life. They have devices at work, at home, mobile, in their living space and they want to have the information that they desire to remain attracted to them no matter where they are. We see the proliferation of web-based bookmarking sites providing people access their bookmarks/favorites from any web browser on any capable device. We see people working to sync their address books and calendars between devices and using web-based tools to help ensure the information is on the devices near them. People send e-mail and other text/media messages to their various devices and services so information and files are near them. We are seeing people using their web-based or web-connected calendars to program settings on their personal digital video recorders in their living room (or wherever it is located).

Keeping information attracted to one's self or within easy reach, not only requires the information and media be available across devices, but to be in common or open formats. We have moved away from a world where all of our information and media distribution required developing for a proprietary format to one where standards and open formats prevail. Even most current proprietary formats have non-proprietary means of accessing the content or creating the content. We can do this because application protocols interfaces (APIs) are made available for developers or tools based on the APIs can be used to quickly and easily create, recreate, or consume the information or media.

People have moved from finding information and media as being their biggest hurdle, to refinding things in "my collection" being the biggest problem. Managing what people come across and have access to (or had access to) again when they want it and need it is a large problem. In the "come to me" web there is a lot of filtering of information, as we have more avenues to receive information and media.

The metaphor and model in the "I go get" web was navigation and wayfinding. In the "come to me" web a model based on attraction. This is not the push and pull metaphor from the late 1990s (as that was mostly focussed on single devices and applications). Today's usage is truly focussed on the person and how they set their personal information workflow for digital information. The focus is slightly different. Push and pull focussed on technology, today the focus is on person and technology is just the conduit, which could (and should) fade into the background. The conduits can be used to filter information that is not desired so what is of interest is more easily identified.