Do all enterprise tools have to solve single quantifiable problems?

The benefits of VisiCalc go beyond its humble origins as calculating paper. It represents a way of using computers that allows the user to ask ‘what if’ questions that would be too tedious to carry out by hand. Not only are such questions important in planning, they can be vital to the user in learning and coming to understand his own application.

Both the words ‘serendipity’ and ‘synergy’ are appropriate for VisiCalc. As VisiCalc evolved it showed us how effective personal computers can be as streamlined interactive tools. But, VisiCalc was not simply a lucky extrapolation of the basic ideas. Both authors of VisiCalc have extensive background in using large mainframes as personal computers and in creating systems to be used by large numbers of people with little training. Word processing background was of special importance since it provided experience in designing screen-based, highly interactive interfaces. More important for VisiCalc, it made us very aware of the need for a carefully designed and tuned user interface. This interface was constantly refined during the development process.

I hadn’t seen this paper by Bob Frankston before – presented in 1979 it introduced the world to a new fangled idea: the Visicalc spreadsheet. Apparently there weren’t a lot of people around to hear the original presentation of this paper, but it is worth reading retrospectively. Diffusion of this innovation was slow to gather momentum, but some people could see the potential.

Why is this worth mentioning?

The personal computer it seams was a solution looking for a problem and the idea for Visicalc came from an idea for improving how individual people currently worked on tedious calculation tasks, rather then affecting the bottom line of a business. I particularly appreciate that the creators of Visicalc thought carefully about how users would interact with it and other software they already used (bearing in mind the limitations of the hardware at the time). In the end Visicalc didn’t completely kill off the idea of either prepackaged solutions for personal computers or enterprise systems, but it is hard to imagine any business today where spreadsheets aren’t still considered to be a critical tool. In many instances you could even argue that spreadsheets are more critical than any of the large, complex systems of record that many organisations invest in.

From this perspective, I can’t but help draw parallels with social software and wonder if its a good idea that all enterprise tools have to solve single quantifiable problems?

BTW if you prefer, you can watch a 2009 re-reading of the paper by Bob Frankston – part 1 and part 2. You can find more Visicalc history on Dan Bricklin’s site.

Hat tip David Weinberger.

The Bigger Picture of Social Customer Service

Thousands of derailed Sydney-siders took to the airwaves and Twitter last Thursday, not just to moan about having their travel plans hi-jacked by the delays, track closures and diversions – but to complain that train operator RailCorp was slow to let them know what was going on.

RailCorp responded to some customers’ Tweets about the problems but in a follow-up interview with ABC Radio Sydney chief operating officer Tony Eid admitted the medium had been used “reactively”…

Partner at social media consultancy SR7 James Griffin said a whole-of-government strategy was well overdue.

RailCorp’s communications problems last week illustrated one of the ways in which social media was not being used correctly by the public sector, Griffin said.

NSW agencies currently had over 100 different Facebook pages – some of them set up incorrectly as profiles and others with questionable purpose, he claimed.

“I can’t understand why they haven’t started already – it’s a quick win and would generate political capital.”

There is definitely more that many organisations could be doing in terms of delivering better customer service online – and its not just government agencies that ignore or fail to engage their “customers” well through social media.

But I disagree that this is something that can be easily fixed in complex service delivery environments like public transport, as James Griffin from SR7 appears to be suggesting.

Even Queensland Rail who are a leading example of good social customer service using Twitter, only operate during business hours.

Sure, you can tidy up all your Facebook accounts and plaster a veneer of social customer service over your organisation, but if the staff, systems and processes aren’t able to support it then eventually you are going to fail.

It is important that delivering social customer service is scalable and maintainable over the long term – I mean, what happens when your internal social media expert goes on holiday, is sick or simply moves on to a new role? And as customer expectations rise, do you have the tools to track and respond to questions, meet information needs at the speed social media demands and also track individual issues to completion? Do you have processes for collecting and taking action on broader feedback gathered through social media monitoring?

This doesn’t mean I don’t also detect a hint of hesitation by Transport for NSW to utilise social media more effectively, but I understand in part why this is the case. I suspect like many large organisations, Transport for NSW need to focus internally before it can really deliver outstanding customer service online. Because if they then fail, the SMEGs are going to have a real field day with Transport for NSW.

Collaboration How-To: Start with Narration of Work

Everyone talks about collaboration in the workplace today but what does it really mean? How do you get from here to there? Every snake oil salesman is selling social something: enterprise social; social learning; social CRM; etc. For me boils down to three principles.


In my post about Designing Social Workplaces, I discussed a model for collaboration built around social networks, observable work, and insights and analysis. However, I quite like the nuance in Harold Jarche’s post, Making collaborative work work where he talks about stepping through Narration of Work, then Transparency and finally Shared Power as a basic roadmap for creating a collaborative workplace.

From Forbes Magazine – A Review of the State of Social Business

According to Jeff Dachis, CEO of Dachis Group, social is the currency of engagement.  While social technology has introduced a seemingly endless array of new interaction methods, in the end it is all about solving real business problems.  Companies do not become social businesses for the heck of it. They embrace social to solve specific business problems because it offers a more effective way of doing talent management, supply chain collaboration, business agility, risk management, and more successful products to driving revenue.  Social drives adaptation.

The state of social is not what you might expect.  Sandy Carter of IBM shared that governments and regulated industries have the highest adoption rate of social.  Eighty four percent of the top thirty five banks have a social media strategy and all G7 governments have embedded social in their Government 2.0 initiatives.  At a country level, German companies are the leading adopters of social business practices and are the most successful at it.  These companies embedded social first internally by folding it into their processes and getting that to work before extending social externally to engage with customers.

Through the lens that social is about solving real business problems, the question becomes just how to wade through all the hype, myths and hubris to realize (and prove) its potential.   Embracing the organizing principles of social business comes down to change management.  You know the drill, you’ve been through it before – it starts with people, process and ends with technology.  The exact opposite of what is being advocated by the thousands of technology vendors and consultants shouting from the social bandwagon.

Dachis Group’s 2012 Social Business Summit seven city global tour kicked off in Austin this week (the Summit in Singapore takes place on the 26th July). Writing in Forbes magazine, Christine Crandell provides an excellent review of the Austin event and outlines some key points about what Social Business is and isn’t. Its a great overview on the state of Social Business if you are still trying to get your head around the idea or maybe you are just little skeptical.

What is the digital workplace? Mostly harmless

I think I’ve worked out what the “digital workplace” is:

If you think an intranet is that internal Website you browse on your PC at work, where a small number of people publish stuff for everyone else inside your company or organisation then the digital workplace is that and more – this includes mobile and remote access, but also other Web-based tools that employees use to get their work done. Wouldn’t it be great if this all worked together, in a useful and usable way?

This might be considered a more polite version of my 3 intranet truths 😉


If you don’t define an intranet in such a narrow way, then really the digital workplace is just a fancy word for your enterprise information system*. For those with legacy IT or technology-driven architectures (rather than being user-centred), the digital workplace is just a concept to push you towards a more progressive IT environment for your users. If you are already on that journey, well done – nothing to see here 🙂

Yes, I’m a digital workplace skeptic; but if all the digital workplace idea is about is a bit of clever change management to get some intranet managers to think more broadly then its mostly harmless and may even do some good. The reason I say this is that (based on what I’ve read so far), the digital workplace:

  • Still lacks a business case or imperative.
  • Doesn’t address the capability or place within the organisational structure of traditional intranet managers to actually deliver the digital workplace (although this could be part of a strategy to raise the status of intranet managers?).
  • Doesn’t address the organisational, operational and fundamental workplace impact of what Headshift | Dachis Group describe as Social Business (Dion Hinchcliffe has been documenting trends and issues in this space for some time).

*A good introductory text to this topic is something like Information Systems Management in Practice or similar.


End of the viral adoption road for social business software?

Yesterday, social software maker Yammer announced it has raised $85 million, bringing its total funding to $142 million. Not shabby for a company with an estimated revenue run rate of some $30 million. The real questions though are what happens next, how does it compete with the likes of Chatter, can it remain as an independent software company or will what it does become part of the fabric of new software going forward?

Great post and analysis by Dennis Howlett (no, that’s not a typo) where he talks to Adam Pisoni, co-founder Yammer, and discusses where Yammer goes next, which I think also has broader ramifications for all social business software vendors.

One of the big take aways is that there is clearly a big shift within Yammer from a company focused on promoting a viral adoption model towards one which is focused on a more sophisticated active change management and system integration. This has actually been evident for sometime, with lots of community management 101 content coming from the Yammer team and obviously plenty of add-ons appearing that enable better integrating with enterprise systems.

A try-before-you-buy model is perfectly reasonable and isn’t entirely unique to Yammer, but while this approach does lower the barriers to entry in reality the software costs are only one part of running a successful pilot or proof of concept (and its worth considering that Jive, IBM Connections, Newsgator, Socialtext etc are being deployed to the enterprise without a freemium model). And as I’m sure Deloitte is finding, flicking the switch on 200,000 global users was the easy bit but replicating success at that scale is whole different order of magnitude from their initial deployment to their Australian practice.

However, overall this is a good thing and reflects my experience of working with organisations where the random, organic approach hasn’t worked (regardless of the platform). But it should also be a wake up call for people who’ve been champions of the viral adoption approach who should realise this is actually quite damaging for some organisations.

Dennis also raises some good points about where solutions like Yammer sit from a vendor management and technical architecture stand point. Personally I think these questions are worth discussing although I don’t believe we can jump to any conclusions just yet. After all, this is a different software marketplace (as we’ve pointed out).

To Dennis’s points I would also add that I think the main danger to Yammer is that it becomes a bit like SharePoint, which is extremely popular but poorly deployed by many. I wonder if “Yammer Governance” will become a hot topic in the near future like “SharePoint Governance”?

What do you think?