The challenge of social tools in the workplace

Euan Semple Profile picture for user euan_semple October 20, 2014
Technology is about people and change and what you want to do with the tools rather than seeing them as an end in themselves.

In last week's introduction to this series I promised to explore what it would take to make the use of social platforms a productive and indispensable part of the modern workplace. Changing how we look at technology is a key part of that.

Someone once called me the Terence Conran of anoraks. I took this as a compliment. If technology is simple and elegant and makes things easier, or even a pleasure, then I am its staunchest advocate. If it is ugly, makes things harder and is an end in itself, I can't be doing with it.

And yet the first draft of this post was all about infrastructure and systems. I was falling into the trap of thinking that technology is about technology! It is not. It is about people and change and what you want to do with the tools rather than seeing them as an end in themselves.

Business technology has, until very recently, been big systems for big business. A mindset that came out of financial services with most IT departments reporting to the director of finance.

Applying this one size fits all model to all parts of the technology needs of our businesses meant that the principles and processes that worked for managing financial information were applied to all use of computing.

The consequence was that we became focussed on the production and retention of data and documentation. We took our eye off the ball of enhancing and improving the more conversational, day to day, work in progress, communication that actually gets things done.

People as resources

We still think of work as a Taylorist machine with inputs and outputs and see people as "human resources", mere cogs in the wheel. But the number of our organisations that are like that reduces every year. More and more of us work in SMEs or as freelancers. The big machine metaphor is breaking down. What we need is something much more tactical and local. More intimate. More hands on.

While most people's access to computing was at work, and while internet access was difficult at home, our experience of technology was still passive. We took what we were given. But with the advent of user friendly interfaces, ubiquitous access, and more confident adoption of technology outside the workplace the balance has started to shift. The enhanced capabilities we are able to achieve for ourselves on the internet are beginning to make their way into work.

But the industry has not really adapted. We see interesting startup social tools grow into the same old over engineered, overpriced and oversold systems that we are familiar with. Part of the reason is that we know how to deal with this. We have people whose jobs and whole careers are predicated on big, expensive, enterprise systems. But we lose the hands on intimacy that I believe is key to the growth of social in business. We end up as passive consumers again.

So what is the best approach to technology? My friend Dave Snowden once said

You can't manage knowledge but you can create a knowledge ecology.

I still think that this is the best way to think of encouraging social in your business. An ecology of low cost or open source tools, strung together by local programmers. Things can be modified quickly and easily, hooks into other systems can be as extensive as you need - and no more. Communications between users and developers can be immediate and responsive.


I know that some will accuse me of oversimplification or naivety. They will claim that to build systems for business inevitably calls for big budgets and big systems thinking. But after all, we are only talking about text boxes here. We are talking about the minimum it takes to encourage bloody good, work focussed conversations. There can be a pressure to try to turn your ESN into an entire business system for your organisation and get suckered into the position that you are running an IT project. You are not, or shouldn't be.

Intimacy, a shared sense of ownership, and distributed networks are all unfamiliar ways of thinking of technology yet these are the characteristics that are most needed if we are to make the new tools work for us. The key is to maintain a firm focus on the goal that we are working towards - more people knowing more about how to do what they need to do better. We learn best from each other and we learn through conversations.

If your aim is to encourage useful and work related conversations then do whatever it takes to achieve this. Work outside the firewall if you have to, use existing tools if people already find they work, only buy tools that work nicely with what you already have or the outside world. Only buy tools that import and export gracefully so that you can move stuff around easily and adapt. Keep things simple and focus on creating a sense of shared ownership. Adopt the mantra "it's only text boxes".

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