Social is not the goal.

This week at the SharePoint Conference 2012, I attended a roundtable with two customers who have deployed Yammer within their organization and are pleased with the results. Last year I attended a roundtable with two customers who had deployed SharePoint 2010’s social features and were pleased with the results. The conversations were similar – and I can’t help but notice a pattern.

The pattern is the beating of the “social in the enterprise” drum. Not just by Microsoft either. Companies today will try to sell you social like others tried to sell you “mobile” in 2009, “cloud” in 2010,  or “apps” in 2011. It’s a buzzword that can mean something, but often means nothing. As a result, getting “social in the enterprise” when you buy many products is much like a teenager believing that if they get the latest fashions, that they’ll get friends in the in-crowd and a date with the person of their dreams. No, social isn’t an end. It isn’t really even a means to an end. It’s a shotgun that organizations keep grabbing for, hoping that they can fix what’s broken.

Read that again. Adopting “social” is really about fixing what’s broken. It really has nothing to do with “getting more social” at all. It has to do with repairing the organization, and its ability to communicate, collaboration, and archive and share knowledge.

Microsoft offers innumerable tools for collaboration. Let’s use that word “collaborate” broadly. Yammer, SharePoint, Exchange, Outlook, Windows 8/RT Mail, Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger (soon to pass on to the great beyond), Skype, Lync, Office presence and co-authoring features, SkyDrive… Numerous names and numerous ways for, in many ways the same thing – tools that encourage users to work together and share better – or simply to share at all. Yet ironically each provides it’s own portal to information that users need to aggregate (or ignore).

Somehow along the way, we all got lost. The goal of all of these tools is the same – to connect entity A with a query with entity B (et al.) with knowledge or decision making capabilities.

I think in some ways an organization that is communicating effectively is somewhat like becoming enlightened – you never think about whether you are communicating effectively because you just are. It isn’t something you can build towards, it’s a state of being. Your organization is either communicating efficiently, or it isn’t.

As a result, we need to stop thinking about “putting more social options in front of users” like they’re food pellets for them to select from. I mentioned all of the tools that Microsoft produces above that are “social”. Alas, you add Twitter (one of my most useful knowledge-sharing/gleaning tools), Facebook, and any other external social network, and users aren’t lacking for social options. No, they are lacking tools to help them unify – to find the signal in the noise.

Subscribing to every single feed and every single document isn’t the answer either. We don’t necessarily need users to have more options to select from to build their knowledge. We need them to have better options. Better search that helps them find domain experts in a field they’re investigating, and help them broker knowledge sharing and find and learn from archived institutional knowledge that should be coveted. Better filtering that eliminates duplicity and reduces noise. We don’t want users getting back to the Pavlovian <DING> response so many of us got conditioned to with email alone. No, we need to learn how to integrate knowledge sharing into our daily lives, without letting it randomize us or break our ability to accomplish actual work. Fewer, better communication options, not a cornucopia.

Organizations today need to do more with less – and there is no indication that that will change anytime soon. As a result, we (all) need to start collaborating more efficiently – not just more. For years, organizations were able to simply look at a room full of minions and say, “Look. They’re diligently working.” When you have people chatting on Twitter, Facebook, or internal Exchange discussion aliases, it can often appear that they are not working – at least they are not working the way you are used to seeing them work on a computer – in diligent isolated silence – for the last 20 years.

This is the new world. It is time to kill the anti-social enterprise. We don’t have to do anything here, though. All we have to do is watch. Organizations need to enable their workers to find the communication tools that work for them, and help them to minimize waste and redundancy caused by individual knowledge silos. The social worker shouldn’t be stigmatized. The isolated worker should be emboldened to think beyond their own knowledge and skillset to learn from others. We are a storytelling species. Employees should be rewarded for sharing knowledge, for collaboration – for cross-team collaboration that may now have a clear marker in their annual review.

When I worked at Microsoft, Exchange discussion lists were the way we all shared knowledge. Much like Twitter, it would pass you by, but you could archive it to a PST, and some were archived to public folders. The information shared here was shared because it was important to someone. It was saved because it was important to someone else.  Important information resonates – it echoes. It reduces the need for every user in the organization to watch for the information, because it will cross their desk in a high visibility channel at some point. I worry with things like standardized email retention policies, this kind of institutional knowledge, and the value it represents, is being lost. Organizations that forget the past are condemned to repeat it.

In the end, we need social organizations – we need organic, collaborative organizations – because those that refuse to collaborate and grow, and encourage their employees to collaborate and build their individual knowledge and skillset – will die.

A standard joke has made the rounds for some time about the exec who asks another, “What if we teach our employees and give them valuable skills, and they leave?“, to which the other replies, “What if we don’t train them, and they stay?

CxOs around the world should be asking themselves the same thing about fostering cross-team information sharing, archival, and search throughout their organization. Social isn’t the goal, even if that is how a product or feature to fix it is sold to you. The goal is fixing broken, dysfunctional, or poorly functioning communication and information sharing in your organizations before it takes the whole ship down with it.

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