Social Business Vs. Old-School Collaboration

Jan 04, 2013 (08:01 AM EST)

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10 Great Social Features For Microsoft SharePoint 2013
10 Great Social Features For Microsoft SharePoint 2013
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A little more than a year into the implementation of its enterprise social network, the IT services firm Avanade moved from treating it as optional to making it more mandatory, with social collaboration replacing older modes such as email lists.

"We got very polarizing responses," recalled Kevin Dana, VP of IT enterprise applications. "There were absolutely cases where the distribution list members said, 'This was working, it wasn't broken, don't fix it.' Of course, the irony was they would be very vocal about this using the social computing tool. When they kept complaining, I would say, 'Hey, guys, you just created a 30-post thread about why you don't like microblogging.' "

Avanade's experience shows that even within technical organizations, the transition to new forms of online collaboration is not necessarily a smooth one. Avanade was created in 2000 as a joint venture of Accenture and Microsoft to be a consulting and professional services firm focused on exploiting Microsoft technologies. A year later, Accenture became the majority owner, operating Avanade as a subsidiary, but the Microsoft-centric focus remained. Naturally, that means Avanade's collaboration approach revolves around SharePoint, although it also takes advantage of NewsGator Social Sites to round out the platform as an enterprise social network. "We liked the way it [NewsGator] layered on top of SharePoint and provided the integration, so we could have as much of a seamless experience between social and the rest of the platform as possible," Dana said.

Avanade is also actively working to migrate to SharePoint 2013, the new release of the enterprise portal that has more social features built in.

In part, Avanade ventured into social collaboration to set an example. "One of our objectives is we do want to be a credential for our business," Dana said in an interview. In other words, any internal IT effort is a potential showcase example for customers who might want to implement the same kind of system.

At the same time, Dana wanted to make sure the system would benefit Avanade's own business. The company promotes as a core value the notion of an "Avanade Fabric," which is "really about the way people are connected" and something social tools ought to help enable, he said.

[ Where is Yammer on this list? Read Microsoft's Big Hits And Misses Of 2012. ]

Previously, Avanade relied on "old-school collaboration," which mostly meant email lists, Dana said.

The first phase of the NewsGator implementation came in February 2011, which is when the first users were invited to test the environment and get used to it. A more complete version launched "with a big splash" in November 2011, followed by a "full-blown launch" and the start of email list migration in March 2012.

"Certain constituencies want and breathe this and had been asking for it," Dana said. Those were the early adopters who signed up in February 2011. However, the people who fought against surrendering their email lists also turned out to have some legitimate complaints. For example, programmers collaborating on a project wanted to be able to share code in prettyprint format for maximum readability, and the social sharing mechanism didn't preserve that formatting.

"We've tried two different workarounds so far, and we're working on a third where we're going to code something as a solution," Dana said. The easiest interim solution was to revert back to using a more traditional online forum, he said, "but then of course we heard the complaint that it wasn't integrated back into the activity stream -- and I'm thinking, 'I can't win, guys!' "

The social network is still being refined, but Dana sees some measures of success. In the early days, the ratio of microblog posts to comments, answers, or replies was about 1 to 1. Now, the average is two responses for every post, a sign of improving engagement.

On the other hand, out of 17,000 employees, Avanade sees about 1,200 unique users actively and regularly participating on the social network. "One of our active goals for this fiscal year is increasing the number of unique participants," Dana said. Even though as a rule of thumb most content on public social networks is created by the most active 1 percent, the percentage really should be higher on a corporate social network, he said. One tactic is using some of the gamification capabilities of NewsGator to recognize active users with badges.

As for why adoption is challenging in the enterprise despite the popularity of public social networks, Dana noted that plenty of Facebook users (himself included) are suffering from information overload from too many "friends" generating noise on the social network. If anything, he aspires for his enterprise social network to be more like LinkedIn.

"Fundamentally, work is still work and the incentives are still around delivering something tangible on a timeline," Dana said. Enterprise social tools need to be "simple and aligned with work, because otherwise people are going to say you're adding more one thing into the information overload I'm getting."

Along those lines, one of the greatest demands from users is to have better social integration with project workspaces, where they can collaborate with the people they are working with on a specific project. At the same time, Dana said social task management "sounds like a terrible idea."

Using the task aggregation features of SharePoint to give each user a personal view of the tasks they need to complete is valuable, Dana said. But if the idea of social task management is to make it easy to assign tasks to people across the enterprise social network, he worries it could break down the governance of who gets to make assignments and who has to accept them. "We already deal with a significant sense that teams feel we are overloading them. Adding a social element could almost drive people to shut down because they've got too much work."

Before the social network implementation could even begin, Dana found he had to revisit the company's intranet information architecture. "We found the scope has to be bigger than just the social tools. We needed better organization around the content and the information, so it could be provided in the right context," he said.

The goal was to make it easier for users to find answers to their questions in documents, where they existed, or through the social network, where they did not. Over time, Avanade has also recognized the hazard of social collaboration creating its own disorganized structures. For example, it does not allow self-provisioning of discussion groups anymore, although it did at the beginning.

"The incentive initially was to prove the value through adoption, so we said everyone can create a group as a way of creating activity," Dana said. That had the virtue of giving users pride in the groups they created. "Now, we provide a place where you can go to request that a group be created, but we'll also help you find one that already exists and convince you to join," he said. Only if what you are proposing has a unique value does it get created, he said. "We're definitely taking a more heavy-handed approach to that over time."

Similarly, Avanade is seeking to strike a better balance between folksonomy -- the hashtag-style approach of creating new content labels on the fly -- and a more formal taxonomy. "Hashtagging is one of those interesting concepts, where initially we left it wide open for the enterprise to coalesce around different labels," he said, but he also sees the need to classify content in a more consistent way. "That's one we want to figure out," he said.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+. The BrainYard is @thebyard and

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the new, all-digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)