Why Process Barfs on Social

PumpkinBarfing3 ZDNet Blogger and eternal pragmatist, Dennis Howlett is at it again. As a follow up to his original “Enterprise 2.0: What a Crock” post and an attempt by a panel at the Enterprise 2.0 conference to respond to his contention, he validates his original argument, saying:

What I find staggering is that despite the panel’s general acknowledgment that ‘it is early days’ they have no clear answers for solving the problems that Enterprise 2.0 evokes. If this is the best that industry can put forward then forget it. There are far bigger problems to solve like correctly managing the workforce in times of economic crisis, smoothing out lumpy supply chains, beating down on data center costs or just getting ERP to deliver the benefits that were intended and which have consumed billions of IT spend dollars.

Given how the discussion on Enterprise 2.0 plays out on the blogosphere as well as at conferences, you really can’t objectively argue with this statement. In fact, Ill go further: The ‘Its the early days’ argument just doesn’t stand up. No different from the plethora of consumer services that we all use (Twitter et al), first impressions are lasting impressions in the enterprise setting as well. As participants, we make up our minds very early about the usefulness of a program, technology or service. And so if intent, incentive, context and usability are not hard coded into the effort from the get go, its never going to have the required street credibility, no matter how much time and money you throw at adoption.

And if you can’t shake fact that Dennis often sports an ERP-colored lens, a fresh eye provided by Venturebeat reporter Anthony Ha also results in a similar conclusion.

The Colossal Enterprise 2.0 Short Sell

The problem is that, in the context of E2.0, there’s little discussion around performance objectives where social computing constructs and technologies can move the needle on discrete but large scale business solutions. Equally bad is that there’s little thought and discussion around the optimal solutions architecture and combination of process + social that can solve large scale problems that keeps the c-suite awake at night. Instead, the discussion is dominated by suites vs. platform debates, more technical gobbldygook (to an executive at least) about feature superiority, endless back-to-the-drawing-board definition debates, and post deployment adoption difficulties that in actuality might not have been so bad had the requisite execution planning been considered in the first place. I’m not pointing fingers, by the way. I also engage in some of these when prodded.

In actuality, Dennis’ assessment is not entirely correct. It’s just that the Enterprise 2.0 airwaves (and conferences) are subsumed by weak business benefit alignment exacerbated by tactical discussion around ‘strategy’ (NOT) that centers around suite implementation, why no one stuck around after launch, and how email sucks.  All that achieves is driving the promise of social computing constructs further and further down the food chain – to a place that few executives really care to hang out at. And the process performance practitioners and pundits have a field day with all of this.

The Beef is, In Fact, Here

My colleague Oliver Marks (who also takes on this issue) and I co-chaired the strategy and execution planning track (review by Ben Kepes | CloudAve) at the Enterprise 2.0 conference where we ran a 3 hour workshop on how to get executives to understand the business value of social computing in the context of performance goals that keep them up at night. Following that we ran sessions that addressed delivering tangible value in the context of known functions and processes in the enterprise: purpose driven collaboration, reducing customer support costs via social concepts and improving product innovation via social concepts. No tools, no features and frankly no adoption. Just performance acceleration via strategic process and performance alignment – topics that are central to the consulting work that Oliver and I are involved in and frankly those that need to dominate the discussion around Enterprise 2.0 (detailed below).

How would the skeptics respond if they heard GetSatisfaction CEO Wendy Lea explain how Nike centrally manages its offsite community discussions for a whopping $8,000/ year? Or Altimeter Group Partner, R Ray Wang’s estimate that social computing concepts, when injected into process, actually reduces costs 2 to 4 X times over those very ERP-esq call center/CRM technology driven programs that Dennis and other skeptics are all too familiar with? Contrast that with the fact that traditional CRM systems on their own are often nothing more than glorified reporting systems that sales reps are mandated to use, in exchange for their commission check. Building on Rays assertion, now, with the strategic use of social computing concepts and technologies in context, these new approaches help nip customer support problems early and at a significantly reduced cost. As important, they inject qualified leads into traditional CRM systems finally giving them a real performance acceleration purpose, beyond bean counting by a Sales Operations Manager. That’s process + social, exponentially improving performance.

Want more? Take the case of how an extremely conservative organization such as Chevron  significant improved safety risk and improved performance:

  • Chevron used social computing (in this case to generate ideas) constructs and technologies to find new applications for patented processes created at one of its oil refineries. These processes, powered by ERP inventory management as well as other systems that manage chemical mixes, fume levels and repair management were limited to one process and one physical location. Idea management via social software enabled Chevron to find and select 6 out of 115 re-application candidates globally where existing patents were reused or extended as new patents, to also improve similar processes on aboard ships, offshore refineries, energy exploration efforts and other “dangerous monitoring environments”. Federated risk management programs and more patents – thanks to the power of social computing that brought the right minds together to ideate and collaborate.
  • Second, reducing safety risks at residential and commercial communities that sit above oil pipelines is obviously critical to Chevron. They used social computing constructs  to get its IT department, ERP inventory management provider and GPS system vendor to generate ideas and to collaborate on a new approach to removing process breaks and paper based processes that impede timely community notification when pipelines break. Social computing was central to this effort to speed up communication to folks that lived close to pipelines and to reduce the time from problem notification to repair.

In all of these cases, data, and intelligence normally buried in closed process centric activity and systems were pushed into people centric social realms for improvement, only then to be put back into process systems in their newer highly optimized forms. If these are not clear examples of how process and so called enterprise 2.0 social concepts came to together to accelerate performance, I don’t know what is. And I’m willing to bet that if the naysayers saw more of these examples, they would pontificate based on a different set of facts.

I suspect this is what SAP EVP, Zia Yusuf might be thinking when he tweeted

@dahowlett blog and wikis will not drive value alone, I think the trick here is to connect “crowd insight” directly into specific bizprocess

…and what ex-SAPer and author of Driven to Perform, Nenshad Bardolliwala credibly elaborates on in his architectural illustration of where social computing can co-exist traditional process based activity.

Whilst we are on the subject of SAP, think those ERP laden processes are all that?  Lets see how Tony Hsieh feels about not using community constructs during, say, the order to cash (and refund) process to provide the same insane level of customer service that Zappos offers during the pre sales process. Sure, you need to have compliance and governance covered, but social constructs injected strategically drastically improves the quality of output in a world where customer centricity is inevitability becoming front and center.

But truthfully, in the defense of the Process advocates, what else can they benchmark against? Certainly not the prevalent E2.0 discourse that’s focused on unseating Knowledge Management, Email, Intranets and Portals to drive nebulous benefits such as productivity, time savings, and worse, the rudderless catch all – workplace transformation.  All in all, these older technologies and programs have shown little to no large scale performance acceleration and the C-Suite is acutely aware of that. If for nothing else, at least SAP helps to keep the SEC, Justice System, FDA and IRS off your back.

The Moment of Truth

Cliff_jumpingDon’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of real work required in the area of adoption that dominates the airwaves and I don’t mean to discount these efforts of some very hard working folks. And even ERP, CRM etc have their own share of usage problems, giving birth to a sizable industry that just focuses just on ERP/CRM training to drive proper adoption. The difference is that intent and the business case for using these technologies are dead clear. Something that’s just missing in the Enterprise 2.0 discussion and stated promise.

The moment of truth is about to hit this category over the next 12 months where executives are going to ask the hard questions about the applicability of these constructs and technologies to performance acceleration and to alignment with discrete business goals. Anything but a succinct answer that involves the right balance social + process and the estimated switching cost will result in E2.0 being tragically (and wrongly) regarded as yet another example of Micky Mouse technology that belongs on a server under someone desk, if at all.

The choice is clear.

Update: More from Dennis on ZDNet commenting on this and some other very good posts on this topic.

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Post Details
  • Sean R. Nicholson
    Nov 8, 2009

    Interesting points and I don't disagree that we need to define measurements on what improvements E2.0 is going to be expected to improve. While Dennis' points are valid, what he's misunderstanding is that E2.0 will actually provide the tool set to “correctly managing the workforce in times of economic crisis, smoothing out lumpy supply chains, beating down on data center costs or just getting ERP to deliver”. Business has been trying to solve these problems without the input of employees and subject matter experts for YEARS and look where it has gotten us! Executives need to understand that the best way to solve complex issues is to leverage the experience and knowledge within their workforce. Turning their back on E2.0 as a fad would be like relying on that old Rolodex + Desk Phone as a suitable replacement for embracing email.

    As an example to solve the workforce issue, I believe that it is critical that we turn to our social tools to help capture and identify knowledge within the workplace. We have been talking about building Talent Management systems forever, yet they never seemed to work in an E1.0 workplace. With E2.0, we *finally* have the ability to allow our talent to manage their skillsets and experiences and share them with the enterprise:


    Upon successful implementation, E2.0 will help us know WHERE our knowledge lies and WHO is able to help us solve complex problems, ultimately providing the missing link that E1.0 needed. Once we understand these critical goals, we can begin measuring how E2.0 is helping us meet them.

    Great post! Great thoughts! Keep 'em coming!!


  • NetHawk Interactive
    Nov 8, 2009

    Hi Sameer, Very intriguing path you follow on the 'inevitabilities' of a new paradigm, or a shift at least, no? Sounds an awful lot like what you are explaining are structural problems. We are trying to learn if the new roles, or jobs, created around the social aspects of the enterprise are gaining any traction? I would love to be the fly on the wall of those interviews.

  • jonmreid
    Nov 8, 2009

    Good read.

    The problem with any radical new concept is that it's viewed, and treated, as a magic bullet; fire and forget.

    E2.0 cannot be implemented and then left on it's own. You need to have a person or people responsible for managing and integrating the output and results. That means allocating a budget!

    Businesses laser-focused on the bottom line are going to drop E2.0 like last weeks NY Times when no immediate, measurable results are reported.

    There are indisputable benefits to be found in E2.0. Sameer and Sean both mentioned some innovative options. Those that budget for the whole process cycle will reap the benefits.

  • John Bidder
    Nov 8, 2009

    How many people think that their organisation is 'sick' or 'unwell'? What are the symptoms? It's a bit like a marriage going wrong. Usually the first thing to go is trust followed swiftly by communication. When these things go in the workplace it's usually because there's a lot of change going on, mixed with some leadership issues and always because of inadequate comms. The value added of using SM as part of a whole internal comms approach is, I think, measurable. Staff retention figures, sickness & absence stats and probably more. I've not been doing this long enough to be really clear on where to look – and maybe that's the problem and your point. It's all a risk and when the hard questions come I hope we're ready. There's that saying about all the ships being safe in the harbour but that's not what they're really for? This is not exactly high risk stuff of kept to internal – it's when the cocktail includes external E2 practice that the bean counters & reputation managers get really twitchy.

  • Sameer
    Nov 8, 2009

    Hi Jon
    Thanks for the comment.
    The thing is that there are some amazing people managing these initiatives and Ive just had the good fortune to meet many of them at the E2.0 conference. Im suggesting that we align with the very performance goals that executives are themselves measured by, as a way to deliver value
    Its another approach beyond general purpose gains – one that I think will provide tangible value much faster.

  • Sameer
    Nov 8, 2009

    If you take a look at this post by Susan Scrupski ( http://itsinsider.com/2009/11/05/checkmate/ ) you'll see that there's a very commendable list of organizations that have considered Enterprise 2.0 programs technologies. And I cant imagine why many of these are not seeing value.
    I'm suggesting another approach that I think will move E2.0 in the realm of solutions that are considered credible execution paths to overall business strategy.

  • itsinsider
    Nov 8, 2009

    grrr. i hate disqus.

  • itsinsider
    Nov 8, 2009

    How did you arrive at the conclusion these companies are not seeing value? These firms are not in the “considering” phase; they've all been personally vetted by me. With very few exceptions, these firms are actively engaged in a 2.0 initiative. If they're in the exploratory stage, they are staffed and budgeted.

  • Sameer
    Nov 8, 2009

    I agree fully, Sean
    There's amazing opportunity for HR and Talent Management and Ive written about it here on Pretzel Logic. To me that certainly is an example of purpose / intent driven adaptation of Enterprise 2.0 solutions. Thats all Im suggesting in this post – a way to make it easier on those working ridiculously hard to get their organizations to understand and exploit the value from social computing constructs.
    Thanks a lot for your comment.

  • Sameer
    Nov 8, 2009

    Im saying I “cant” imagine that they are not seeing value. :)

  • Sameer
    Nov 8, 2009

    Thanks for the comment John.
    I think theres tremendous value internally and theres different levels where value can be articulated. In this post Im advocating for more attention to be spent at higher levels and the potential risks of not doing so, fast.

    See this interview wih Andrew McAfee (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jh8H5tZgkJw&feat…) about the need and opportunity to level with executives about the power of this stiff

  • Jon Reid
    Nov 8, 2009

    Makes sense. Everyone pulling in the same direction using the same measures. Will help sustain executive level buy-in too.

  • saschaohler
    Nov 9, 2009

    I see the main problem as people pushing for pure play in their respective categories (ERP/CRM vs. E2.0) when in reality the combination of the two will yield the desired performance and productivity results. ERP/CRM does a fantastic job at capturing, processing, and organizing data, where E2.0 + Social helps to diseminates the information to the right individuals/groups who add value before re-ingesting the data into the Process. This provides true collaboration with the underlying strength of the process to ensure repeatability and checks & balances.

  • Sameer
    Nov 9, 2009

    Totally with you. There are no doubt stand alone use cases (improved approaches to project coordination ad collaboration, general findability, etc )but, as you describe, there's exponential value in the meeting of process + social. Thanks for the comment.

  • chrisyeh
    Nov 10, 2009


    I think the big quandary we all face is that there is no single E2.0 market. So much has been gathered under the E2.0 umbrella that searching for common ground and one-size-fits-all language results in terminal vagueness.

    I know for a fact that collaboration solutions can drive business value because we (PBworks) have thousands of customers who bought us to solve problems (not because they wanted an “Enterprise 2.0″ or “Social Software” solution. The issue is that the specific use cases are incredibly diverse, and most understandable by folks in the same industry.

    We've tried to address this by attacking specific markets like case management for law firms, but it remains a challenge to answer the generic question, “So, what do you do?” We still need a crisp definition a la CRM.

  • chrisyeh
    Nov 10, 2009

    One other thing of note–I like your explanation of using people-centric environments to refine ideas which are then integrated back into the process-centric environments where most work gets done.

    The analog on our side is the workspace template. We allow our customers to create custom workspace templates (including tasks and milestones for simple workflow). These templates can be refined as a group, but the key is that they are process documents, not social ones, and address the need for accomplishing a specific business goal.

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