The S Word - A Repsonse

by Thomas Vander Wal in , , , ,

Inspired by Andrew McAfee's post, The S Word about the use of "social" when talking to enterprise businesses, I am sharing my response I posted in the comments.

I have run into the connotation of social as a term that has associative connotations to the hippy movement (the slide image Andrew uses with his presentations), socialist (non-capatalist or anti-capitalist tendencies), redundant term to use with business, and more. While most of the people who I engage with inside organizations do not have the negative connotations of social, there is normally a senior manager with ability to veto a project or put it under great scrutiny who has such connotations. I hear many people say that it may be easier to get these individuals to change their definition, but that is as naive as saying they can get a Boston Red Sox fan to believe the New York Yankees are a lovable baseball team. This transformation is rarely possible, thanks to the Cold War, 60s anti-establishment, and years of reinforcing the associations of the term social to strongly negative connotations.

The response to Andrew's post (edited and slightly tweaked):


The Problem with Social (the Term)

I deeply agree with the core problem of the use of the term social and its resonance inside businesses. The problem with social has a few facets to it, but using collaboration is just as if not more problematic.

The pairing of Social with enterprise or business is a bit redundant, as business by its nature is social with meetings, interactions, and communications at the core of what a company does to provide its products and/or services. Business is also social in how it interacts with its customers and potential customers. What has been problematic over the years (many tens of years) is technology has been less than optimal in mapping to how humans are social into technologies, which inhibits optimal social interactions inside and outside an organization. Communication and the efficiency of around this focal point is essential to understand and optimize around.

This often leads me to use social software, social tools, or social computing as a means to distinguish the tools that better map to how humans, in their life and work, need to interact with others. These optimized tools and services with lower levels of friction most often lead to greater efficiency. Distinguishing between tools and services that get in the way of eking out tacit knowledge to ones that ease this activity is essential, particularly in how it is shared, found, and used in the practice of an organization.

Having done this mapping, I usually find leaving social out of the rest of the conversation. Focusing on technology pain points and the inefficiencies inherent in many of the normal enterprise tools for communications and group interactions is where the focus belongs and how these newer classes of tools and services help resolve these problems.

Putting business (or enterprise) and social in close proximity is not only redundant, but rather lacking in insight into how businesses think of the term social at their core (normally the upper management and finance areas). The term social business is used within some circles of economics and finance as a euphemism for those industry segments often related with escorts and prostitution. Other understanding of the pairing of social enterprise, is in Europe with ethical and green policies as in the Social Enterprise Alliance, As well, the definition of social business in Wikipedia, as of 14 December 2009 states, "A social business is a non-loss, non-dividend company designed to address a social objective." All of these reinforce the use of social known connotations of social in business, which have very different intent than the discussion within the context of enterprise 2.0.

The solutions all of these energy is being put toward is not solving problems with business being social, but business tools and services they use as inhibiting the social interactions that are needed to most efficiently exist and survive. While not optimal, social software and social computing are rarely put into the contexts that just social or social business/enterprise conger up. Keeping understanding on a straight path and communications flowing as intended it is good to be clear and understand what what terms bring up. Many if not most organizations are currently looking into or deploying social business and/or social enterprise initiative along the lines of the Grameen Bank and reducing carbon footprint connotations these terms have been connected to in many recent years.

Collaboration as a Fuzzy Term

The second large problem is collaboration, which is equally if not more problematic. Collaboration is often a used a broad lazy term for any things were people work, interact, or share information. Denning and Yaholkovsky in regularly point out the severe problems with the broad use of the term collaboration and often focus on the term "real collaboration" to bring the focus of collaboration back to the original concept of people working together to accomplish a common goal and for a unified result, as in artist collaborating on creating a statue (not many versions, but one). I know you, Andrew, grasp this really well.

Over and over I see many organizations buying "collaboration" tools with out sorting out what sort of group or shared activity problem they are trying to solve or the type of services/tools that are needed to fill the gap. Often the collaboration tool is not matched to the problem space and need, which then needs framing the various types of interactions, collections, sharing, curating, co-creation, etc. that are there. The types of tools, interaction design, and solutions are different for each type of activity and one size does not fit all (I am continually amazed how foreign this is to many).

What do we call it? That is a tough problem as many of the terms are not precise and/or come with much baggage. Currently, we do not have a term with currency that fits the need perfectly.

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