The adoption of social software (a.k.a. social media, social computing, enterprise 2.0, etc) within organizations seems to be taking the following general path: focusing first on the tools, then on the broader purpose for those tools, and next, people and their skills with the technology and the ways that those skills affect their relationships with each other.
Author Clay Shirky writes in his book Here Comes Everybody that
Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring… It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen.
Right now, social software for business use is still really, really interesting. Many seem to suggest that it is the answer to many of our problems. For others it is the unproductivity devil incarnate. The debate rages on, but for the last two or three years, that debate has been about the tools.
In the last year or so, people have become more interested in the purposes of these technologies, the types of policies that need to be put into place, and the new organizational structures and roles that are necessary for their use. Just yesterday Harvard Business Review’s Tom Davenport wrote that he is
..becoming convinced that the way to gain value is to combine computer-based sociality with computer-based structure.
The focus on tools and the focus on purpose have been showing some signs of promise, but it ignores a crucial part of the the picture: The people, their relationships, and the skills that they possess for using these technologies fluently.
“Wait a minute,” you are thinking. “Hasn’t social software adoption been all about people? I mean, it’s social.” Yes, it has been about people, but we’ve glossed over some of the very human difficulties with learning to use social software.
As Shirky suggests in the previous quote, the “boringness” of a technology is partially caused by its pervasion into our everyday life. But the greatest cause for the boringness of a technology is our fluency with it. Consider your native language as a technology. How often do you think about it? Not much. You just use it. It’s boring because you’re fluent. The same goes for writing. And stairs. And hammers. And cars (except when they break down).
Lots of people are becoming literate in the use of social software (knowing the basics of how to use something and what to do with it transactionally), but a much smaller number are becoming fluent (being fully comfortable to know when and why to use it transformatively). Silly-sounding names like Twitter, and Facebook, and SocialText and YouTube make them seem simple and easy. Non-serious-looking interfaces suggest that learning to use them should be fast and natural. But becoming fluent with them–especially within an organizational context–can be socially, operationally, and even emotionally complex.
We help clients to look at all three of these areas within their individual organizations, but I am excited about the prospect of this occurring on a wider scale. Once these technologies become really boring as a result of greater fluency, we’ll be on our way to using them to help solve bigger challenges.