Home > Communications, Social Business > Unified Communications & Social Business, Part I

Unified Communications & Social Business, Part I

February 5, 2012

Apples & Oranges, or Salad Supreme?

It’s no secret that IBM collaboration strategy is about more than collaboration — it’s about social business, an idea that subsumes all the goals of collaboration, but that uses the technologies and concepts of social computing to go much further. In the conversations I’ve had with customers, its rare they don’t "get it" — the social model is so natural, so adaptable, and so free of the reach- and audience-limitations of email or team websites that the benefits seem pretty clear.

But it’s not that customers have no questions. Social is a transformative force, and transformation never happens on its own, no matter how good the technology or the idea. There’s a lot to think about here, like: How do I enlist users in adopting the new ways of working? What best practices are right for me? What about compliance? And so on. The question most on my mind lately is this: What about Unified Communications?

Well, what about it? Isn’t this the proverbial no brainer? How could you do social and not communicate? Nothing to see here folks, let’s just get on with pinging, liking, recommending and all the fun that cooks up when you put "social" and "communications" together. Right?

For my part I say we should think this through a bit. Yes, no question we all are going do use social tools and systems, and yes, no question we’ll all be doing IM, VOIP and video. But what’s the relationship here? Does one follow the other? Do they ever conflict? Is there a synergy I can create, or will social and UC forever be a side-by-side thing? I myself don’t have answers, and I daresay there’s a lot here IBM is still figuring out. As recently as last year, Mike Rhodin, our Sr. VP of Software Solutions said that Social and UC are "adjacent" (Social Media And Unified Communications: Will They Blend?). Then again, at Lotusphere 2012, I think there was no question that social was positioned as the leader. Finally if we look at Facebook and Google+, the pre-eminent public social systems, they all have integrated communications — Facebook has video calling, and Google+ has GoogleTalk and Hangouts — but I don’t think anyone sees those as must-haves.

So, what are the questions here?  Clearly, the place we need to start is, with termites.

Yes, termites.  Bear with me.  They are social insects after all, and termite mounds are oft-imagecited examples of emergent phenomena, something that we want in social business.  These mounds are complex structures, constructed to provide airflow and control temperature.  Do termites build these by communicating?

In a way.  Termites have evolved such that they are wired for certain behaviors.  For example when one termite deposits a pile of sand or dirt somewhere, other termites who encounter it can’t help but add onto that pile.  Temperature and air pressure provoke termites to drop piles in certain spots, which then get added to –  ultimately the piles become an entire mound that looks like it was designed.

I term this implicit communication.  The impulses of a termite are implicit in the piles of sand it leaves about and other termites respond to that.  I hope you can see that, although its more thoughtful and information-packed, we humans are doing the same thing when we post a link or a document – hopefully our fellow humans will react to that in some fashion that leads to a useful result.

But termites don’t explicitly communicate – no termite ever says to another, “The northwestern 3rd floor could use a few more sand piles –want to come along?”  They don’t need to do this, termites are born with all the “wiring” they need.  But humans aren’t.  We need explicit communications to devise the wiring for our projects and different social networks.

You might think this is a small, self-evident point.  I don’t.  Examples abound of implicit communications leading enterprises astray, including such catastrophes as the Gulf oil spill to the Challenger disaster.  And implicit communication is by definition never complete, because the receiver can never have complete context.  The New York Times ( Facebook Is Using You, 5 February 2012 ) published an op-ed on some little-understood dangers of data mining and social networking, for example credit bureaus adjusting your credit score based on your online activities.  In this case, though we don’t intend it, we are implicitly communicating something to the credit bureau, which they interpret using a context most favorable to them, and not to you.  I don’t think this “post and they will come” way of working is what we want for our business outcomes –we want to be sure as we can that we all know why we’re moving these sand piles around and what the real goal is.

Context I think is what makes the difference here.  When we communicate explicitly by audio or video, what we are really providing is context.  Of course there is the context of tone and body language, but more importantly there’s the simple context that comes from you being able to ask a question directly, or from me being able to test your understanding of what I said.

Implicit and explicit communications, two sides of the same coin – both powerful, one side leading to economies of scale and unexpected linkages, the other side providing precise context and dynamic information sharing.  Seems to me that without the explicit half of the coin, work could well become a little too termite-like … and I could be a termite with a bad credit rating, to boot.

How much do we need the explicit power of UC in our social business plans?  I’m very interested in your comments.

  1. February 10, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Interesting post, which probably deserves more thought before responding, but here goes my first reaction. Social collaboration has multiple dimensions we need to think thru as software creators.

    The major one that comes to mind is the distinction between ‘push’, or ‘command’, driven collaboration versus what I call ‘value’ driven collaboration. When I go to social collaboration systems, I go because I expect to find and leverage value there. Primarily information I need. Nobody is telling me to go there. If I don’t access a particular community, activity or forum for months, nobody is holding me accountable for being a no-show. The value is in my results. But every business also needs a ‘command’ channel for the “you must review the Business Conduct Guidelines and certify before x date” type of communications. My manager holds me accountable for being up to date with my e-mail because that’s where ‘command’ communications happen today. As we think of integrating collaboration, we have to be careful to allow appropriate separation, or filtering, of these types of collaboration. The last thing I want is an overcrowded river of news stream resembling an overcrowded e-mail inbox. I need filtering that makes it easy and intuitive to separate the ‘command’ and ‘value’ driven forms of collaboration.

    The UCC/Social relationship you raise is another interesting dimension, but this one focuses on whether you need the answers instantly or not, and whether you know who to ask. As much as technology allows you to ask a group of people the same question, it would clearly be too interruptive if we all sent out multi-person polls every time we needed an answer. When it comes to the value driven information exploration work, I often go to a social collaboration system without knowing who the author is of the information I seek. [See this blog post for an example: https://www.ibm.com/developerworks/mydeveloperworks/blogs/quality/entry/how_connections_helped_connections ]. Yet, when I find the information, I may want to contact the author for additional perspective. UCC is more acceptable (less intrusive) when used for 1:1 communication. It’s also great for many:many collaboration, but that would be for meetings, etc. So the synergy between UCC and Social technologies bridges that spectrum, with Social focused on the many players and UCC focused on fewer players. I may use the social software to search a great many authors & docs & tags, and then use UCC software to gather context, chat with the author, or have a synchronous meeting with the team using the information.

    No doubt we need the explicit communication for context as you describe. But as we integrate UCC into the social collaboration models, I think one of the keys is to pay attention to the different modes of collaboration (1:1, many:many, information exploration, information dissemination, decision making, etc) and integrate the right technology for the right task in the right place; not just offer ubiquitous presence awareness, or every capability in every place, but offer the right capability in the right place. This is challenging because the social software usage models are not so well defined. Vendors write their software to be configurable and adaptable to appeal to the widest possible set of enterprises, yet often fail to offer more prescriptive guidance to their customers in best practices and best usage models. Which means UCC software has to be very flexible allowing for efficient integration into rather different usage models. System administrators need to be enabled to configure what integration points to surface, and which ones to keep dormant, based on their preferences and the trade-offs they’re willing to make between functionality and performance.

    Like I said, your post is worth more thought; This was my initial reaction. Keep the thoughts coming!

  2. March 9, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Hi Fernando,
    I really like your image of the termite mound. May I ask your permission to use it in a PPT presentation and related blog posts? Or, if it’s not yours, can you tell me where you found it? I am getting ready to give a talk on complexity and organizations at the University of Tokyo and termites are a wonderful illustration of emergence.
    Thanks in advance,
    Steve

  3. March 9, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    This particular termite mound image comes from: http://www.johnlwarren.net/formal-properties/48/termite-mound. I believe you can use it, I didn’t see any limits on usage.

  1. October 16, 2012 at 7:57 am
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