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(Source1 - IDG, Source2 - The Free Library, Source3 - KM World)
I used to ask someone I know who worked in the I.T. department of a clothing retailer to try standing up in a meeting now and then and ask “How will this help us sell shirts?” It’s a serious question. I’ve seen countless I.T. projects fail, or just fail to do much good, after spending millions of dollars solving a problem that didn’t really exist while at the same time ignoring the plaintive cries of the workers in the rest of the company pleading for small improvements to make their day to day jobs a little smoother.
If you work in a consultative role with customers then sure, you may have need from time to time to locate that obscure piece of knowledge known only to some coworker you’ve never met in an office half way around the world. You may then need software that can dig out that expertise, locate the resource, and instantly chat with the person while language translations happen in real time, all so they can rapidly respond to customer demands.
Those kinds of people do exist. In fact, they probably exist in our industry more than almost any other and that may be where our bias toward thinking of their needs comes from. Where most of those people certainly do not work, however, is in the bulk of all those cubicles where all those people in our offices do the work that actually makes the money for the company. Unless the company itself is a consulting services firm, most of the people doing most of the work are just trying to get through day processing whatever normal everyday tasks they get paid to do. They don’t need or want to talk to a guru in Whogivesacrapistan about the essential role of a particular type of staff used by sheep herding tribesman of the Northern Plains. They just need John, who sits two cubes over, to sign off on this year’s fabric order.
Our industry has a reputation for creating problems in order to create solutions and sell them. For the overwhelming majority of knowledge workers, the need is for decent document creation, project management, highly customized process management, and straightforward communications tools. Adding “streams” of information just gives them another thing to be expected to keep up with. “You didn’t see that? Why not? It was in my stream yesterday.” No matter how much you want to, you’re not allowed to answer “because I was too busy actually doing my job to keep up with your stream”.
The stuff I’ve seen out there being sold as “Social Software” comes down to the following parts:
1. Profiles: Something most employees would rather not have. It adds yet another level of anxiety. Is my profile up to date? Did I forget to include every single skill I’ve ever had? I made a camp fire once in Girl Scouts that started with just one match, should that be there? Is my picture both attractive and at the same time professional enough? Argh! Who cares? Most employees have no need or desire to expand the number of people they’re working with, and when they do it seems to work ok to be introduced!
2. Streams: Based on warmed over and badly done imitations of Facebook or Twitter, what these really are is an endless dump of all the information everyone else wants you to have. They are an excuse for poorly organized information storage. They are the exact opposite of the “taxonomy” idea from the last “giant new paradigm” called Knowledge Management. You don’t dare not subscribe to someone’s output at work – if they find out, they’ll think that you don’t value them. These become an endless task of constantly checking for new additions lest you be caught “out of the loop” by not reading.
3. Document Repositories: Like file sharing, but done badly and dumped into streams. It’s excellent when documents are in the stream, because then they keep getting moved downstream where you have to go looking for them.
4. Workflow: At best, very expensive to customize in any serious way and with functionality not yet on par with what Lotus Notes gave you in 1993. This is probably the most important and effective thing an I.T. organization can add after a working email system and it’s now been moved into an expensive and complex “Social” context.
Let’s not forget that we’re spending MILLIONS of dollars to do this. Is it any wonder that the business side of the house is constantly trying to find ways to outsource the I.T. shop?
These endless boondoggles are just attempts to define new markets and suck down millions of dollars from hapless customers and are nothing but a distraction from our real job as I.T. professionals -- helping our customers do THEIR job better and make more money for their own companies. As long as we keep conveniently forgetting why we exist, and that we are a cost of doing business -- not the business itself -- the business side of the house will always be looking for new ways to outsource or otherwise control our endless costs.
It's time to wake up and build the software people want.
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