Social Communication in the Enterprise

These days all the cool kids are tweeting, twittering and telecasting their every thought and activity using services like Twitter and Facebook. While i’m usually willing to give new technologies a try, i’ve been hesitant to take the plunge into Twitter. It’s not like i need additional sources of distraction: i’m perfectly capable of losing my focus all by myself.

In some respects, Twitter seems like another replay of several earlier IT pyramid schemes: first bulletin boards, then websites, then blogs. The earlier adopters get the lion’s share of attention, and the people who follow them get the initial benefit of more information and (maybe) more access. But as the pyramid grows over time, the volume of communication becomes unmanageable. Then we evolve new schemes for managing the flood: bookmarks, feeds and feed readers, tags spaces (hash tags for Twitter), and other meta-schemes. At some point we ought to stop and ask whether the new communications services and the additional complexity and overhead they impose provide enough benefit to justify their cost.

I’m humble enough to acknowledge that many smart and productive people say they get a lot of benefit from Twitter, so maybe i really am missing something by remaining doggedly tweet-free. But the latest issue of eWeek (you may need to download their reader to access it) has a nice review of several enterprise-oriented social communication services (SocialCast, Socialtext, and Huddle) that’s making me rethink my position. These have several distinct differences from Twitter and Facebook that make them more interesting to me:

  • Narrower scope of communication: While broad services like Facebook and Twitter provide access to a universe of information, that can become overwhelming, particularly when the universe is talking back at you. Limiting the conversation to what’s happening in our company has a lot of appeal.
  • Better business information: getting the right mix between quantity and focus about what’s going on in your company has always been a difficult challenge in my business career. The people who have the most to say are also very busy, and of course they already know what they know: so there’s asymmetry, with a cost to them in producing information while most of the near-term benefits accrue to their listeners.At the same time, there’s no easy way to predict what information might be useful to whom, so generating lots of it makes sense provided there are effective ways to filter it.
  • Distributed leadership: personnel at all levels have useful things to offer your company, if you can just break them out of the stovepipes of departmental structure and management hierarchy.

Here’s how i might see this playing out at Logos. Our business structure is largely typical for a software company of our size: there’s a sales and marketing division with some people who travel a lot and who (along with inside sales) provide a lot of our revenue, a customer service group that deals with users and their problems, the programmers who make the application work, a smaller group (where i work) that’s developing new features and data sets, a variety of support and infrastructure people who keep IT, finance, etc. running smoothly, and of course a management team that’s steering the corporate ship. All of these groups have front-line access to information that might help the rest of us do a better, given the right kinds of access.

One of the challenges is to keep the information we all broadcast a little more targeted. While some amount of personal interest makes all the hours we spend at work more fun, too much information about somebody’s disappointment that their favorite team lost, or how much they hate paperwork, the lousy sandwich they had for lunch, etc. would start to make this just like Facebook (and i don’t think having employees reading Facebook during work time is a good strategy for productivity). But i’d love to hear:

  • from front-line sales people: a conference sales pitch that really hit home with people; the reason somebody just gave for purchasing our software (or not purchasing it); a complaint from a loyal customer
  • from customer support: the common problems that get raised over and over, and that would make make for a much happier user experience if we fixed them upstream
  • from support staff: the challenges that we can all help with
  • from programmers and from R&D: exciting new discoveries, tips and tricks
  • from management: new things we’re learning and thinking, big picture business issues, where we see our business heading

Many of these things get communicated now, just more formally, and therefore less frequently, and to a more selective audience within the enterprise. Moving toward Twitter-style microcontent, just a little more focussed, might provide the right mix to get me tweeting.