Tag Archives: social computing

Change is good for you: the perpetual beta of social media

imminent-ned-facebook1Every time Facebook rolls out an update, (some) people will complain. Every time your company intranet rolls out an update , (some) people will complain. The difference? Facebook updates every other month (sometimes more often). Your intranet probably hasn’t been updated in years. Either way, people – some people – will always dislike change. Even for the better.

Are you one of those people made to use ancient software for your company intranet or other internal “enterprise” software? Software that looks and works like it was made in the 1990s? Software that looks awfully outdated next to Facebook, iOS7 or New York Times?  Many people still do. Why do they still exist? Well, there are many reasons. But I will say that the chief reason is a resistance to change. Inertia. An unwillingness or even lack of courage to lead the change, however painful.

Facebook changes a lot, and if you ask me I’ll tell you that that’s a good thing. Because at least Facebook is trying to improve. Sometimes for its own benefit, and sometimes for ours.  (OK, to be honest, I am very annoyed by Facebook’s recent algorithm changes which have reduced the overall organic reach of Pages, but apparently it is in the name of individuals’ news feed relevance).

Regardless of whether your company’s internal software tools are upgraded for IT’s benefits or yours, the point is that it occurs too rarely. The problem with a lot of modern enterprise IT “solutions” is that they are built for today using yesterday’s technology and are unable to change tomorrow. They lack nimbleness and flexibility. They are also “governed” by rules that add to the picture of ponderousness. Some people may argue this is necessary, that at enterprise level, care and security are of utmost concern. I won’t disagree – but at the expense of updatedness? At the cost of relevance? Has anyone ever calculated the cost-benefit ratio of security at the expense of updatedness vs the fall in productivity and competitiveness due to obsolescence?comfort-zoneMany software systems slide into obsolescence in the name of governance. Is it worth the productivity of employees to be always using obsolete or near obsolete software and computing paradigms? What is the true cost of using software that is a year out of date? 2 years? 5 years? Computing evolves too fast today to tolerate such a cost. I reckon this is one of the key reasons that in recent years, the disconnect between IT departments and business users have grown – including the disconnect between IT departments and social media users, such as marketing and customer engagement, and even customers themselves. When was the last time you were a potential customer of website and left without buying because the website didn’t work smoothly as you wished?

Exacerbating this is the natural bias of management to side with the secure, the governed and the predictable; and to resist the risks and unpredictability of change. Many managers want upgrades but do not want change. They forget that the two come hand-in-hand. Such managers often take the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” stance, praising the merits of “stability” – but two or five years down the road, the software has only become a ponderous deadweight of “stable” obsolescence. Perhaps that software has had a few patches, maybe even a mid-life upgrade. But in the world of enterprise software, issues of maintenance contracts, budget and even the nature of internal “expertise” often limit just how far the upgrade(s) go. In the end, a Symbian phone with upgraded Symbian OS is still a Symbian phone. (Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for Symbian/Nokia – they gave many many years of great mobile experiences!).

The term “perpetual beta” came about around 2009 when Tim O’Reilly was talking about Web 2.0. Not surprisingly, it is closely associated with the social (media) movement.  In a way, it translates as the software or service being likely to have on-the-fly updates without being fully “tested” (which might simply mean not fully ‘project-manage’d or ‘governanc’ed). While it is a means of seeking users’ understanding that certain things might not work properly or may even break down, it also allows developers to observe actual use and take real user feedback from the software.

Gmail is one of the most well-known examples of a perpetual beta – it was in “beta” for some five years from 2004 to 2009. Do you remember the days of asking for a gmail invite? Point is, some of the world’s most popular and modern, up-to-date computing tools today are those that are constantly changing, such as Google apps and social media tools like Facebook.  O’Reilly describes some of the characteristics of perpetual betas as having:

  • Services, not packaged software, with cost-effective scalability
  • Control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them.
  • Trusting users as co-developers.
  • Harnessing collective intelligence.

While these may not apply to all kinds of enterprise tools, I dare say these are qualities often cited as valuable to companies, in the area of IT, enterprise architecture, business management, human resources and the marks of an effective modern business. These are precisely the qualities afforded by social, by social media, including socially empowered internal enterprise tools. The reason many of these qualities are still missing in companies is because the paradigm of a perpetual beta is still anathema to many corporate mindsets. Unfortunately, this means the perceived costs of nurturing social is inherently not welcome, even though its advantages are highly sought after.  The intranet needs social to survive. Unfortunately, inertia needs little to survive. Think about this next time you are forced to use an antiquated version of Internet Explorer to use your intranet, the next time you are shown the cost of making a small change to your website functionality or the next time you have to log in twice in a Single-Sign-On system. JD houston change

Online Community Management – Art or Science?

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One day a month ago, an acquaintance from NUS’s Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning (CDTL) asked me if I would be interested in doing a presentation at a conference on teaching. I said, as someone teaching social media engagement, I wasn’t exactly sure if I could contribute. I said that my approach isn’t as “academic” or pedagogical as a conference of educators might expect. Although, the fact is I’ve been trying to address the issue of teaching something inherently unteachable. I.e. community engagement.

That sounds interesting, he said. So I continued. The problem with trying to teach human engagement is that it is full of “soft”, indefinable things like creating trust through sustained exchange and engaging a person’s interest through content. I’ve tried to define them in terms of frameworks, but that in itself is always tinged with futility.  My acquaintance nodded knowingly, and said that that’s precisely what needs to be done – “framing” something that resists definition. Even in the business of education, the same problem applies – how do you scientifically define the process of “teaching”? In doing so, do you lose its essence?

The simple answer is that online community management is an art and a science. An art because it has to deal with human behaviour – particularly the irrational kind. Even employees can be (positively) irrational. Because it has to deal with nuances of language, emotion and atmosphere; because it takes leaps of faith and educated guesses – stuff that a pure scientist would either balk at or become confused with.

But we cannot ignore the science part, because at the end of the day, online community management makes use of technology. This means two things:

1) It, as well as social media in general, is a product of computing – specifically social computing. Meaning, if computing (and computers) didn’t exist, social media wouldn’t exist either. We do not know of a better tool that powers online virality or ambient awareness or asynchronous communication.

2) It is measurable, because it is computerized – it is a creature of numbers. It is also becoming increasingly sophisticated. While it can still be argued that web technology measures the quantitative better than it measures the qualitative, the fact is there are many computer scientists out there who are trying to create better ways to measure social media – be it in terms of sentiment analysis or social engagement.

Coming back to online community management, it may be some time (if ever) before one can truly measure such qualities as trust and negative comments. When it comes to defining and teaching the subject, the need to portray both “art” and “science” aspects of the field is immediate. For example, the topic of developing a community from start to sustainability needs a framework to help define it in a “step-by-step” manner.

As my acquaintance puts it: it may be a difficult and perhaps futile thing to do, but someone’s gotta do it. I can only say I will try.