How did social computing come about?

Social computing is among the most disruptive technologies making their way into the enterprise. The ever-growing number of users in social networks (half a billion for Facebook as of last month) has the potential to radically change how we do business and challenges our traditional notions of workforce collaboration and productivity. In fact, Bill Gates has said that “social networking-type applications will become as ubiquitous in the workplace as Microsoft Office tools and will likely replace e-mail as the dominant form of corporate communications.”

What is driving the use of social computing within the enterprise? First, there is the consumerization of IT, where younger knowledge workers bring to work their own consumer devices equipped with social computing features and functions that are part of their everyday lives. A recent Unisys and IDC global study on the consumerization of IT found that the average respondent now uses four devices for work and that the adoption rates for devices and applications is accelerating. The study found that the number of information workers in enterprises with 500 employees or more using smartphones will grow from 90 million in 2009 to 160 million in 2014, and the use of social networks by these workers will also double over the same time period. The number of business interactions will grow fourfold from 3.5 trillion in 2010 to 12.7 trillion in 2013. Clearly, IT departments must find a way to strike a balance between worker productivity and expectations, while getting a handle on how to manage these devices and applications.

A second driver is the “open” movement. The collaborative and productivity benefits derived from connecting employees, customers and partners in business-oriented social networks are no longer debatable. This open model achieves great economies of scale and has found traction in many disciplines, from open source to open design to open innovation. (For more details on open innovation, be sure to visit Prof. Henry Chesbrough’s Berkeley Innovation Forum.)

The technology adaptation life cycle

How will the enterprise adopt social computing over time? What are some of the potential directions and benefits beyond today’s implementations?

The adoption of social computing in the enterprise may well occur in four distinct phases over time — although a couple of these phases may occur simultaneously. This adoption will be characterized by both the classic and well-known “technology adoption life cycle” and what we might term the “technology adaptation life cycle.” The technology adoption life cycle looks at how the overall market adopts emerging technology, from the pioneers and early adopters, to the early and late mainstream, and finally to laggards. The technology adaptation life cycle, on the other hand, has to do with how a single enterprise adapts an emerging technology to fit the needs of its business and how the market adapts the technology over time to fit these needs.

In the first phase of our model, technology is used almost as-is, or off-the-shelf, with little adaptation. During the second phase, enterprise-class software products emerge that are true platforms with multiple social computing features and functions built in for a more robust product. As in the first phase, these enterprise-class software products — or services, in the case of software-as-a-service offerings — may be used off-the-shelf and in stand-alone settings. The value provided is higher, however, since the vendors have fine-tuned the technology for common and needed enterprise scenarios. In the third phase, these enterprise software products are integrated into core business applications and processes. Finally, in the fourth phase, the technology is so ubiquitous and essential that it becomes an integral part of the business.

If we buy in to this model (which can also be applied to other technologies in the enterprise such as wireless platforms), a close analysis of the four phases of adaptation may give us some insights into the future of social computing in the enterprise and the kinds of deployments that may be prevalent in the future.

Phase I — Off-the-shelf and point solutions
In this phase, enterprises that want to better connect with customers and build their social networks adopt platforms such as Facebook and Twitter without any modifications. Enterprises also deploy point solutions such as micro-blogs, blogs and wikis as communication and collaboration tools. The corporate use of Yammer as an internal Twitter-like tool is a good example.

Phase II — Enterprise-class platforms
The emergence of social computing platforms such as Jive, Newsgator, SocialText and Telligent, with full suites of social software functionality built in, marks the second phase. It allows CIOs to think about deploying such technology strategically across their organizations. These tools have let enterprises enhance knowledge management portals, leading to improved collaboration, as well as greater connectivity and interaction with target audiences; bolster customer support channels and processes; shore up innovation processes; and provide more mechanisms for the capture and sharing of ideas. Several enterprises have reached this phase.

Phase III — Integration with enterprise applications and processes

We are now on the threshold of this phase, where CIOs and application portfolio managers will determine how social computing can be used to enhance their existing enterprise applications and processes. Social computing has the potential to bring more collaborative features to legacy applications. The trick is to seamlessly integrate social computing functionality into core business applications and processes so it speeds cycle times when compared to more manual and less collaborative approaches.

This phase also presents CIOs with the opportunity to address a long-standing problem with transactional business applications. These applications, often custom-built, provide tremendous process efficiency for standard transactions, but come to a complete stand-still when exceptions arise. Social computing capabilities that are integrated into these applications will provide more efficient ways to resolve such exceptions than face-to-face meetings, phone calls or faxes.

Phase IV — Pervasive and embedded capabilities
As social computing technology matures, it will find its way into a large number of enterprise applications as a built-in feature and become more of a checklist item for software purchases. In some cases, CIOs will decide to augment the built-in social computing functionality with a specialized enterprise social computing platform.

The best is yet to come

The largest business benefits will certainly be seen as we move into the last two phases of adoption within the enterprise. As social computing becomes more and more integrated into core business applications and processes, its benefits will be realized through significant productivity improvements. That will make social computing a key tool as enterprises continue to exploit IT for their next wave of productivity and innovation.

Nicholas D. Evans leads the Strategic Innovation Program for Unisys and is one of Computerworld’s Premier 100 IT Leaders for 2009. He can be reached at [email protected].

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