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Social Software at KM Chicago

Rick Klau, VP of Business Development at Socialtext spoke at Tuesday's KM Chicago meeting.  He also keep his own blog, tins.  The topic was social software, in general, with a demonstration of the concepts through Socialtext. 

This was a good talk for me, since I have jumped into the middle of "social software" with blogging, but have had limited exposure to wiki's.  I get the general concept, but I haven't played with them heavily.  (Now that Rick has set up a Socialtext space for KM Chicago, I will get to play with it more heavily.)

Rick's version of background on "social software" 

  • The underlying belief behind social software is that the group or team using the software is the best set of people to decide what is important.  "The organization's intelligence is best delivered from the bottom up" rather than being mandated from the top.  Or worse, having the organization's intelligence controlled in a way that is not conducive to using that intelligence (i.e. software that gets in the way of doing work). 
  • Rick made an interesting connection between the popular The Long Tail article in Wired by Chris Anderson.  While the article explored consumer behavior, Rick makes a connection to knowledge management projects.  He suggested that corporate KM projects tend to focus on what management wants, rather than what is important to employees and getting work done.  Work gets done despite the big KM projects, instead of because of it. 
  • The only thing social software shares with social networking or social network analysis is the word, "social."  Beyond that, they are quite different. 

So, what is it then?  Social software is about collaboration: working together, learning from each other.  Rick cited an IDC study that says 90% of collaboration happens via email, but email is primarily a communication medium (and it is rife with spam, virii and occupational spam).  Fun quote: People don't get work done in email, but they spend a lot of time there.  Typically social software encompasses wiki's and weblogs.

  • wiki is a web page with an edit button with little other control.  Socialtext requires that you be a member of the workspace to read or edit the content.  Wikipedia lets anyone who wishes edit pages.
  • wiki assumes that the page will evolve over time.
  • Weblogs are similarly easy, but each "entry" tends to be fixed.  Essentially a blog entry is a recording of one's thoughts and ideas at a given point in time.

How do people use social software?  When comparing to knowledge management, one example is as a "knowledge base."  Rather than a CMS which requires layers of approval, give people a tool that enables them to write and modify the pieces of knowledge that are important to them.  And the social aspect lets that knowledge grow and change over time, as the group learns more about that topic.  Project communication is another example where social software comes into play.  Rather than continuous requests via email or phone, give the team a place to note what they've done.  The project manager can write regular summaries that talk about "where things are" based on this information, and the portfolio managers can view the latest summary.  There are many other examples, of course.  

As with any collaboration and communication medium, social software is for people, and people sometime do funny things.  The more vocal people tend to dominate the conversation.  People deface their surroundings.  People get uncomfortable speaking in groups.  Social software can't fix these things, but it can make it ridiculously easy to contribute by removing nearly all the barriers evident in traditional contribution arenas. 

Easily half of the presentation was discussion-by-example.  Rick walked through the features of Socialtext by demonstrating its capabilities in a space he created for KM Chicago to explore.  Some of my impressions

  • You need to be a member of a space to even see it, so there is a higher social pressure to "behave" and not deface the wiki or otherwise make a mess of things.
  • Socialtext integrates with e-mail: I can send email to the webspace and it appears with the subject line as the name of the page.  If that page had been previously referenced, it gets created in all the right spots.  If it already existed?  (I believe the page gets appended by my email.) 
  • It also integrates with email notifications of changes.  Or you can subscribe to an RSS feed of changes to a specific page or the RSS feed of recent changes to the entire site.  Very handy.
  • You need not fully map out the entire "website" in advance.  If a page doesn't exist, no big deal.  Click on the link and create the content.  Or let someone else do it. 
  • Wiki mark-up looks odd, but it is familiar from the days of flat text editing (asterisks for bullets, etc.)
  • There is a simple tagging system, and I though Rick said Socialtext lets me tag things differently than how you tag them. 
  • Top down taxonomies are broken as soon as they are rolled out.  Tagging is a much simpler way of getting things done. 
  • Does a Socialtext space need a critical mass?  Not usually, since these are geared toward very specific activities.  The group in the workspace are also the people doing the work.  They have a vested interest in participating and using the tool to get work done. 


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