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The Connected Web

Phil Wainewright

How Social Messaging Works in the Enterprise

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Listen to my two-part interview with Ross Mayfield, chairman, president and co-founder of Socialtext, a leading enterprise 2.0 collaboration and social networking vendor.

In this podcast, hear how enterprise 2.0 is helping businesses share knowledge more effectively, and learn why encouraging staff to send short Twitter-like status messages can be surprisingly productive in an enterprise context. Come back next week to hear the second part of our conversation.

Listen to or download the 7:29 minute podcast below:

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PW: Well, Ross, enterprise 2.0 I think of as being about new ways of sharing knowledge within an enterprise. Actually people used to talk about knowledge management, which is very much an out-of-fashion phrase now — mainly because it took a very highly structured approach — and there's been — the pendulum seems to have swung the other way now, because we've got social computing and that's very much at the unstructured end of things. But what's your definition of enterprise 2.0?

RM: Right. So if you think about the failings of knowledge management, it was effectively that you would have a side activity of filling in a form within a given structure that an expert had determined before you even walked up to it. And in that form, you were supposed to reveal all of your tacit knowledge, and then they'd have some kind of artificial intelligence or advanced algorithms, kind of managing, and categorizing, and matching chunks of knowledge according to a logic that someone else designed that might not reflect reality.

As it turns out, there are ways of getting knowledge to be shared — as opposed to be managed — as a by-product of getting work done. Now enterprise 2.0 has a facet to it which is about that knowledge sharing, but it's also about just simply being much more productive and making it easier to find information and to find people. I actually go to Professor Andrew McAfee's definition of enterprise 2.0, which is "freeform social software, adapted for enterprise use." And the important word in that is 'freeform'.

In other words, it is unstructured. The structure of the application emerges as a by-product of people using it. The intelligence of the application comes from the people who are using it — and it turns out that people are pretty good at certain things. The other part of that definition is in the same enterprise 2.0 paper. McAfee also described some of the properties of an enterprise 2.0 system using the SLATES paradigm, so there's search, linking, authoring, tagging, extensions and signals.

And so I suggest people might want to look up that original paper and then think about, if they had those properties within their organization, how would they be able to discover people and information, and be able to collaborate more efficiently and flexibly than they could today?

Right. To me, I think the thing that really resonates with enterprise 2.0 is this concept of having the technology enabling the things that people do already — just fitting in with people's existing habits, and making it much easier for them to do the knowledge sharing, or discovery of other people and what other people's expertise is, just as part of going about their normal day-to-day business.

I think that's the great thing about computing in today's world — is that it's starting to be sophisticated enough to work with people in that way. One of the things that I like about Socialtext is that I think it pushes the envelope in adapting the software and the platform to the way that people work. And your latest announcement is something which I think illustrates that. Because you've taken the concept of Twitter, which is this SMS messaging product, and adapted it to the enterprise, again in a way that fits with the way that people work.

That's right. So when we started back in 2002, we started off with a wiki-based platform. And then we've grown the platform beyond wiki functionality — which is done in workspaces for team collaboration — to social networking, where you can make it easier to discover expertise and a bevy of other tools.

But most recently we started to offer social messaging, which is adapting something similar to Twitter, which is rising in popularity. I mean there's 6 million people using Twitter today, 270 million people on Facebook — and we deliver something similar to a Facebook for the enterprise — but 15 million people update their status on Facebook daily. And this has become an increasingly common way of doing social messaging, which interested us — so what we've done is to build this in across the Socialtext platform, with an integrated user experience, as people are using collaboration and social networking type tools.

Yes, but excuse me if this sounds a little bit rude, but aren't most of those 'x' million users of Facebook and Twitter [just] teenagers with nothing better to do with their time? So getting the relevance into business is something that, maybe, people don't always understand how that would happen.

Well, when people grow up doing their homework on Facebook when they're in school, we call that cheating. When they come to the workforce and use similar technologies, it's called collaboration. The difference I think is, there are certain things that social messaging is better at compared to e-mail and instant messaging. For example, those short e-mails or IM sessions where all someone's really doing is just trying to share a link or a tiny bit of information to a broader group.

And instead of sending out an e-mail blast, this is simply more efficient at the very least because of its brevity of 140 characters or less. It's also, you might notice, whenever you ask a question on Twitter, you tend to get an answer relatively quickly from your network and it tends to be a pretty good answer.

But the thing you might not have noticed is, you've done so without forcing an interruption on people. In the same way that if you had an open question and you didn't know where the right information is — you couldn't solve that problem with search, or you didn't know who the right person to talk to was — when you signal inside of a company, you're able to get that answer without forcing interruptions on people. As opposed to sending out an e-mail blast, interrupting people on instant messaging, or even scheduling an unnecessary meeting.

And maybe a last quick pattern about this is also contact sharing. And this matters increasingly as people work in distributed teams. Nobody ever updated their IM status, and all that status is just the state of a communication channel — where you're available, or you're not — and that's very different from the kind of context sharing, to be able to see not only if somebody might be on the phone at the moment but what has that person been working on lately?

Right. Okay. So actually, what we're talking about is some kind of messaging medium, which allows people to transmit their current status and what they're involved in at the moment, in a way that's less intrusive than IM but is still useful and gives some kind of context for what people are doing?

Right. And the other part of it is that generally the messaging occurs in public, which makes it discoverable for other people. It's easier to discover new contacts, new information that's being shared, what the organization overall is thinking about [and] talking about. But the other important point is that it's opt in. You choose who you want to follow or who you want to subscribe to, and that helps self-regulate against information overload.

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

Phil Wainewright specializes in on-demand services View more

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