We are social animals for whom networked software is creating a new kind of habitat. Social software can be defined as whatever supports our actual human interaction as we colonize the virtual realm. The category includes familiar things such as groupware and knowledge management, and extends to the new breed of relationship power tools that have brought the venture capitalists out of hibernation.
Computer-mediated communication is the lifeblood of social software. When we use e-mail, instant messaging, Weblogs, and wikis, we're potentially free to interact with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But there's a trade off. Our social protocols map poorly to TCP/IP. Whether the goal is to help individuals create and share knowledge or to enrich the relationship networks that support sales, collaboration, and recruiting, the various kinds of enterprise social software aim to restore some of the context that's lost when we move our interaction into the virtual realm.
In networked environments, everything we do can be monitored. Absent the natural cues that establish social context -- it's hard to see groups form at the water cooler or hear voices in the hallway through e-mail or IM -- social software systems ask us to strike a bargain. If individuals agree to work transparently, they (and their employers) can know more, do more, and sell more.
For many people, the required level of transparency will take some getting used to. "Our customers now include Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Morgan Stanley, and intelligence agencies," says David Gilmour, CEO of Tacit Knowledge Systems. "And they all have come to believe this technology that watches and compiles -- for the benefit of the individual -- is going to become a permanent backdrop and the dominant paradigm for enterprise software."
What Tacit's ActiveNet watches and compiles are the e-mail messages and documents written by knowledge workers. Its mission: to ensure that no two people whose document trails reveal a mutual interest in making a connection fail to miss one another. "But it's not our job to force you to work together," Gilmour says. Users' content remains private; the ActiveNet connection broker works only with explicit consent.
Of course, we humans don't always need to discover new collaborators. We're already members of teams. Within those teams, there isn't a one-size-fits-all social protocol. Outspoken individuals author the blogs popping up on corporate intranets. But other team members may prefer to contribute to a wiki, which is a collaborative space for Web writing. Ross Mayfield is CEO of Socialtext, a company whose hosted workspaces support both modes. "A blog enables people to express their identity," he says, "while a wiki page de-emphasizes the individual and emphasizes the collective understanding of the group."
The same person may find both modes useful in different ways. Adam Hertz, VP of technology strategy at Ofoto, uses Socialtext to coordinate his development team. During a period when he was traveling a lot, he says he started an internal blog to keep his team updated on his outside activities. It was helpful, but was unnecessary after he rejoined the team.
The Social Life of Content
Whatever the mode of communication, the primary goal, Hertz says, is to create group memory. Chris Nuzum, CTO and co-founder of Traction Software, echoes that theme. Traction describes its offering as "enterprise Weblog software," but Nuzum says that a typical Traction project is more of a group effort than an individual journal. As such, a lot of the social interaction that would otherwise occur in e-mail moves into the comments and discussions attached to the project.
Building group memory and team awareness has always been the goal of KM (knowledge management), of course. "But most people," Nuzum says, "have never had the benefit of mechanized institutional memory." One reason for this limitation is that KM systems have tended to ask people to dump knowledge into databases without regard for social incentives, habits, or consequences. These are central concerns for social software in all its various forms.
Think about how people behave in a face-to-face meeting. Now consider this report from Ethan Schoonover, Asian e-business director at Lowe + Draft, about his use of Groove Networks workspaces to manage meetings online. "It's not enough to know that 100 other anonymous intranet users are logged in," he says. "I want to know who is present in the space, who is online but lingering outside the space, able to be called in by 'hollering into the hallway,' who is sending nonverbal cues by rummaging through papers."
Group formation is not only a social process, it's often a political one, too. During the Iraq war, there was a compelling demonstration of Groove's unique ability to enable groups to form across political boundaries. Eric Rasmussen, a physician and naval officer, worked with the U.S. government's CENTCOM (Central Command) in Kuwait City, Basra, and Baghdad, delivering IT support for various humanitarian efforts. In one key information-gathering operation, he says, "We converted the paper form into a Groove form and then asked the major players (DoD (Department of Defense), State, USAID (United States Agency for International Development), several UN agencies, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), Kuwaitis, Saudis, Brits, and U.S. Civil Affairs teams) to download Groove ... and invited them into the space."
The immediate goal was to coordinate far-forward troops and humanitarian agencies. Rasmussen rates the outcome a success. Later, he adds, "they began to talk to each other, civil to military, Kuwaiti to Brit, U.S. Army Civil Affairs to U.S. Marine Civil Affairs" -- and those conversations led to the creation of the Iraqi Health Logistics Center.
Selling by Six Degrees
For Tacit's Gilmour, the hard problem is figuring out "who knows what." Given a set of connections among people, documents, and topics, he says figuring out "who knows who" is straightforward, which is why Tacit now wants to add that capability to its product. Websites that build, visualize, and exploit social networks -- including Ryze, LinkedIn, Friendster, Spoke Software, and Orkut -- have exploded on the scene. Software visualization of relationship networks has been around for years. It wasn't until recently, though, that these online services made the technique available to millions of people.
For the average business user, such services are most helpful when searching for potential employers, employees, or partners. But relationship maps are of special interest to salespeople, who are desperate to abolish dreaded the cold call. Recruiting is a perennial hot topic, but the new killer app for social networking software in the enterprise will deliver relationships that salespeople can leverage.
"There is an instant, intuitive understanding on the part of the VP of sales that the sales process relies on these relationship networks," says Antony Brydon, CEO of Visible Path. His company's software, in limited use but not yet generally available, doesn't read your e-mail or documents. Its relationship-mining engine does, however, absorb your contacts from all available sources: CRM/SFA systems, e-mail systems, and desktop contact managers. Of these sources, CRM and SFA contribute shockingly little to the relationship map; Brydon pegs the number at about 2 percent. Visible Path's modus operandi is to "find the 98 percent of relationships overlooked by Siebel and SalesForce" and make them accessible from within those applications.
Like other social networking applications, Visible Path brokers introductions through a chain of anonymous intermediaries, revealing private information only with consent. The network's scope is corporate, not global, which Brydon says uniquely qualifies his product as enterprise software.
Steve Pope, president of Applied Marketing Services, a consultancy that helps commercial real estate brokers find business, describes one trial deployment of Visible Path in an office of 22 brokers. "It's an age-old problem," says Pope. "Brokers want to guard their connections, but the decision on a building in Kansas City may get made in Chicago, and collaboration is what's really going to win the deal." Without robust privacy assurance it could never happen. But once users see that they're in control of the opportunities, and are anonymous in their responses, they warm up to the idea quickly. "If you sit there and let the equipment do its data mining," Pope says, "your phone may ring."
The trial has been so successful that Pope now envisions broader use of the software. Extended to an extranet, it could enable real estate brokers and commercial furniture salespeople to share their complementary relationship networks. For Chris Tolles, VP of marketing at Spoke Software Inc., the bigger the network, the better. "This is a Web-required space," he says. "A large, open network is much more powerful than a small, closed one." According to Tolles, Spoke takes a dual approach. The company sells an enterprise version of the application for use behind the firewall. But the internal relationships can be federated with those arising from activity on the public Spoke network. The union of private and public profiles is only visible internally, though. Members of the public Spoke network can't see IBM's firewalled relationship data.
Social protocols are notoriously tricky to implement in software, and we'll see lots of experimentation and tuning as things progress. Consider sales and recruiting, the low-hanging fruit of enterprise social software. What happens if somebody ignores a request for an introduction and cuts in on a deal? Along with automated relationship mapping and introductions, we'll need to define and enforce what Pope calls rules of engagement. Even in an anonymous network, everything is ultimately trackable. "That's going to open up a lot of the dirty little secrets," Pope says, and "shine a light in the dark corners of our business."
Can transparency and privacy coexist? Tacit's Gilmour argues by analogy that they can. We have a reasonable expectation that our phones aren't bugged, he says. If our voice mailboxes fill up and we become unresponsive, though, that becomes an issue that will be noticed and dealt with. The enterprise has a legitimate interest in finding bottlenecks. "Privacy privileges are constructive when applied to who-knows-what and who-knows-whom," he says. "But we don't think you're entitled to privacy about whether you're available for interaction."
Are we entering a brave new world or is cyberspace catching up to the way things work in meatspace? The answer to both questions is yes.