Shaping Serendipity on the Job

on June 7, 2011
SMARTS™ Data-Powered Decision Management Platform

The announcement of the acquisition of SocialCast by VMware caught my eye last week.  This is not surprising since we have been very interested in the dynamics of Social and Collaboration for over a year as you know.  Let me point you to a very good blog post by Mike Fauscette from IDC that describes the value-add of SocialCast to VMware’s portfolio and I will then share my own thoughts on the subject.

I view Social as several waves of capabilities that are gradually penetrating the Enterprise with increasing value.

Social = Communication

The early Enterprise 2.0 companies / capabilities have focused primarily on the social updates to keep the user’s entourage aware of his / her status.  Facebook excels at sharing, tagging and commenting on pictures between friends.  Twitter allows small pieces of news to travel the world in record time.

Applying those technologies to the Enterprise required some thinking.  When I visited the Enterprise 2.0 conference last year, I was only partially surprised that large companies were still struggling to find the right use case for this technology.

The obvious first step was to leverage it with the current users, the “consumers”, for marketing or public relations.  The success stories we kept hearing about back then was about Comcast trying to turn around its image by servicing its customers via Twitter — looking out for angry and loud customers and proactively giving them red carpet treatment –, or Dell creating a new sales channel for refurbished equipment.  I must admit that the early mover and creative thinking here gave them extra credits and (more importantly) exposure.  It is refreshing to see marketing dollars routed to a value-added service rather than pure advertisement.

Product Management / Marketing also started creating some inbound traffic by allowing their customers to express themselves in their communities and share ideas on what they like / dislike in the current offerings as well as ideas on how to make them better.  With voting capabilities, you can filter a lot of the noise that could be generated on mass market products.

Social = Serendipity

The next move with the likes of Moxie or Jive has been to shape serendipity.  I do not recall who coined this expression but I love it.  By communicating at large to an available audience, you can increase your odd of come across the right information at the right time.  In our Encounter with Geoffrey Moore post, he amusingly referred to “the serendipity of the guy with chocolate running into the guy with peanut butter”.

The typical Salesforce example is for Sales automation of course.  As a sales guy (or gal), you may be looking for nuggets of information in your ecosystem at the time you need it — which is inevitably minutes before a sales call.  You certainly do not care to know about every single call into tech support in real-time, but when you meet this important customer, it is invaluable to know that he/she has a dozen open tickets including 2 critical ones that have been pending for over a week now with very little activity, possibly some angry language was exchanged.  If you do not have the time and energy to look for it, you may want to post a quick note asking if anyone has anything to report on that very important customer.  The answer, happy or not, may come from tech support or fulfillment or training or professional services or legal or marketing, etc.  The beauty of the social platform is that only those who are available will look into it and feel compelled to share what they know and think is relevant.  Company-wide emails was the old way of doing it but they tends to be pooh-pooh’d if not ignored by most of the employees.

Social software allows employees to connect and get those conversations going.  Employee communication is for me a much greater animal than the Voice-of-the-Customer initiatives I referenced earlier.  Having a Product Management background, and a relatively niche market (B2B), I feel quite comfortable about getting the meat of what my customers want.  Corporate efficiency is a real challenge though.  Optimizing one division is hard enough but breaking the silos between those divisions is extremely complicated.  Whatever can be done to improve that situation has the potential to reach very high ROIs with little efforts given where we are starting from.

At Enterprise 2.0, a large insurance company asked a great question though.  How do you make those tools effective?  Having the ability to engage others is great but you still need some guidance to drive conversations with more value-add than comments on the cafeteria food…

Social = Serendipity on the Job

Granted you can post tweets to let your ecosystem know that your plane is late and serendipitously discover that you are stranded with an old buddy and meetup for a drink but you would get great value-add, at least in the corporate sense, if you could marry the social “icing” to the corporate “cake”.  Michael Fauscette points out that the ability to bring those activity streams and collaboration tools in the context of actual applications is critical to the enterprise adoption.  This is what we call “serendipity on the job” and I agree that those capabilities will enable Social software to soar throughout the enterprise bringing tremendous value.

The raw capability of exchanging information puts the burden on the users to self-organize and find a sense of purpose.  When those capabilities are intrinsically integrated with day-to-day tasks, they have the opportunity to be used without excessive thinking or learning curve by the stakeholders.

When Salesforce released Chatter in the context of the Sales Automation application, it unlocked something big: the ability to work collaboratively, to leverage the collective in the context of day-to-day activities.  As the Sales exec, I can look at my portfolio of customers and post information that is targeted to a captive audience.  Only service reps in charge of my account or for some other reason interested in this account will subscribe to the status updates and will be notified.  This reduces the chatter (no pun intended) that goes around in company-wide emails.  It also captures the thoughts and contribution of the involved stakeholders on the spot — eliminating unnecessary follow-up discussions as well as capturing tacit knowledge.

Do not underestimate the value of being in the context of your application.  I love Twitter but I don’t have the time to read all the tweets from my friends.  Nobody does.  It serves a purpose of communication and trend-watching.  Integrated Social / Collaborative capabilities serve a different purpose of connecting “doers” for a well-defined purpose.

It is not rare to hear about the “intangible” value of Social Software.  I would argue that, when it is clearly applied for a given purpose, its value is much more obvious and measurable in terms of productivity and eventually bottom-line results.

I believe that this acquisition is a brilliant move from VMware and we shall hear about more Social Software acquisitions from the platform players that are building the “next generation”.

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