Monday, July 23, 2012

From social objects to business objects ?

Moving from a document-centered work organization to a relationship-focused one is a long, difficult journey. Adapting some insights about social objects to the business world can help accelerate the pace.

Exception as hell

We are (hopefully) moving out of the expert / content focused world where we have lived for many years, out of this «push» environment where perfection was almost imperative before any given document would be distributed down the organization. And yet, when we move from concepts to everyday work, this is a topic on which conviction is not that easy.

Comments such as the ones below may ring a bell to you:
  • we should work on that document again, it seems like people don’t understand it;
  • that’s not our work, we need to have the product experts develop the training basics;
  • we can’t move forward with that if marketing and communications do not take ownership of the communication material;
  • we cannot make a video, that’s PR work;
Or even worse :
  • I can’t wait for my sales rep team to go to training, they are not up to the job (!!!)
  • Sorry, the customer help desk is busy and I do not have permission on that page,
  • ...
In all these examples the assumption is that, without access to the proper document or the proper expert, there is a risk of error or, even worse again, a risk of making the decision to deal with what is an exception without engaging in the proper process (product or functional). Let’s take an example: if, as a sales associate, I need a document allowing me to compare my services to those of my competition, I should be able to have that document quickly. In a regulated market, many companies will prefer to go through the proper process for compliance review to quickly adressing a sales opportunity. As a sales associate, I consider this crazy, all the more so in a social networked organization, in which I know and have access to the compliance officer !

Because it was not made to deal with it, exception is hell for the classic push focused organization. 

Exception as value

The transition in corporate organization that we are going through (whether you call it from push to pull, from process-centered to people-centered, or moving to social business or Enterprise 2.0) entails a tectonic shift in how we treat exceptions (because exceptions will become the norm, and you can only face variety with variety), and therefore also in how we treat and manage expertise and how expertise is deployed throughout the organization and used to provide value for the client and society.

Exceptions can be thought of as those business cases that have not been foreseen by the corporation or those for which it has chosen not to provide a mechanical answer. In both cases, there is no process available to deal with such exception.

In a world where the value is in relationships and not in economies of scale, an exception is an opportunity to build value, whether it is internally within the organization or even more importantly, with your clients. Think about the evolutions in call centers ...

And therefore, the organization should be agile enough to respond to all exceptions, being then able to automatize this response (technologically or socially) if it so choses. Instead of needing to go back through the process or the hierarchy to start all the operations needed to treat the exceptions, our sales rep should be able to mobilize the whole corporate power to have his document ready, even if it means having the compliance officer move down to the field and spending two days of his time working in a document. Here we get to my main point, documents.

In the classic, XXieth century corporation, if you consider documents as being a key component of a process (and namely, the vehicle by which expertise is transmitted), it is very understandable that «taking ownership» for producing or modifying a document was tightly controlled. And if you consider that value was in industrialization, then it is also understandable that our compliance officer would not go out of his way to solve an exception, but would instead work on industrializing  ways of dealing with as many exceptions as possible (that would then enter the «standard» category).

This is one of the problems we get when we try to move to the social business world. Value is in the interaction, but corporate officers roles, processes and documents have not been designed nor implemented for interaction but for industrialization.

Have you ever been confronted to the communication syndrome when driving social business projects (or collaboration projects) ? 
  • Let’s communicate about our community success, says the community manager;
  • Sure, says the communication officer, just give me a couple of weeks ...
In the social business environment, there is important work being done on roles (moving from function to role), there is work being done on processes (social enabling processes, even if I will have something to say about that one soon). But I had not yet seen a lot of conceptual work on documents that I could use operationally; I think the whole conversation about social objects provides an opportunity.

From social objects to business objects.

The opportunity is to consider documents as social business objects, or business objects, instead of vehicles for expertise deployment and transmission.

I was first introduced to social objects through one of JP Rangaswami’s post, and then went to see what Hugh MacLeod had to say about it and finally read how the concept emerged in one of Jyri Engestrom’s posts

They explain the concept of social object in great detail, but to paraphrase Hugh MacLeod, a social object «is the reason why two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to someone else». He goes further:

«The thing to remember is, Human beings do not socialize in a completely random way. There’s a tangible reason for us being together, that ties us together. Again, that reason is called the Social Object. Social Net­works form around Social Objects, not the other way around»

Well, is there any reason for us being together in the corporation ? Might that be that we actually love what we do and that serving clients is what we do for a living, and even more than that, what we do because it’s how we contribute to society ? And then, what are the projects we work in if they are not Social Business Objects ? 

Let’s push this line of thought. A video that relates a sales best practice is not important because it’s perfect, it’s important because it has been the reason why several people in the organization have worked together. It’s not the content that is important, it’s the relation that has been created. Of course, do not get me wrong, expertise is important. But access to expertise is not the same today as it was yesterday: let me use the words of JP Rangaswami:

«There was a time when “content” was created by a tiny minority of people, largely because the tools for making that content were elitist in nature. Scarce, expensive, needing specialist skills. To make matters worse, the techniques for distributing and sharing that “content” were also elitist in nature. So people who “owned” that “content” felt like kings.

Now things have changed. There’s been some limbo-dancing. The barriers to entry for creating, publishing and distributing “content” are getting lower by the minute. Which means that the content kings are all dressed up with nowhere to go. And so the only option they think they have is to try and recreate the barriers they used to enjoy, in paradigms where they are technically and economically difficult to recreate»

The same conflict may exist in the corporation between the «content kings» (experts, function owners, process owners) and the rest of the corporation, and more precisely the sales associates or other client-facing staff. They know for a fact that the problems they face could be resolved quicker if only the content kings behaved differently. But nobody has told the content kings that their positions and power and influence did not rest on their content anymore (at least, not only).

Considering our valued pieces of knowledge (documents, spreadsheets, presentations, videos, photos, and even, yes, intellectual property) not only as content but primarily as business objects, that allow the relationships between the different functions and projects and people of your organization to be enhanced, is a needed move.

For any department, by the way, having a Business Objects strategy will prove very valuable, as they will work on their documents or videos not to provide the perfect document (even though they ultimately will) but to engage all the persons that can add value to that document. Or value to that business conversation. Value, in the end, to that business issue, that, if it is of any value to clients, will bring about an ever expanding number of exceptions. Only, they will not be considered as exceptions but opportunities for business conversations and innovation.

I think it is useful to consider the corporation as an ever evolving network of contextual networks, forming around the business objects that the clients want to talk about.

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