Social Networking Tools on the Road to Enlightenment

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Connecting the Collaboration Dots
Social networking also has a great deal to do with productivity, learning, and innovation, observes Rob Cross, an assistant professor of management at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce and coauthor of The Hidden Power of Social Networks: How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations.

In his view, the increased complexity of most new products and services, reduced development cycles, and leaner budgets require social networks that bring together a depth and breadth of expertise faster and more effectively than ever. 

Against this backdrop, who you know is important, but what you know is critical. "History teaches us that most breakthrough innovations are re-combinations of existing ideas or technologies, the integration of which occurs through informal networks," Cross says. "While traditionally, these networks have formed in very serendipitous ways, it is becoming increasingly important for people to cultivate and manage these connections." 

Together with Robert J. Thomas, executive director of the Accenture Institute for High Performance Business, Cross has studied high performers across a wide range of organizations to "learn what makes networks better." Accenture defines high-performance companies as organizations that have produced the most total return to shareholder (TRS) growth in a set time frame. These companies have a track record that shows they consistently outperform their peers, across business cycles, industry disruptions, and changes in CEO leadership. 

The research revealed three characteristics common to high-performance social networks. The first is structural: High performers have a greater tendency to position themselves at key points in the network. The second is relational: High performers tend to invest in relationships that extend their expertise and help them avoid learning biases. The third is behavioral: High performers value networks and engage in behavior that leads to high-quality relationships, not just big networks. 

"It's not about building social networks; it's about knowing how to increase and decrease connectivity in ways that enhance productivity and performance," Cross says. His ongoing research into organizational network analysis, which he pursues as director of his university's Network Roundtable, a consortium of corporations and government agencies, reveals that over-connectedness is a common leadership trap. 

People may have folders of LinkedIn email requests for referrals or be in demand to contribute to several communities of expertise. Whatever the reason, Cross says, these people have gotten overloaded and are holding up the flow. "They are so busy that they become the bottlenecks of their social networks." 

See (IT) Through
Strong social networks don't just happen. They have to be carefully constructed and supported. "A great deal of time and money is wasted on blanket approaches to promoting linkages and collaboration that yield disappointing results," observes Accenture's Thomas. A better approach would be one that understands the social network as it really is: growing, shrinking, reacting to stimuli, flowing in the direction of opportunities, and pulsating with life.

But how can people hope to manage what they cannot see? Thomas and his colleagues are working on a solution that will allow a visual representation of social networks. Are key people communicating with each other? Are newcomers quickly connected with the group? Is the right content being circulated among the right people? These are the questions Thomas says must be addressed early, before they develop into dangerous network disconnects. 

"New visual network tools would illuminate areas of innovation within an organization and allow managers to reward diffusion of learning," Thomas explains. "Managers would come to recognize the patterns of communication or interaction that characterized energetic and creative teams and could apply that knowledge to other areas of the organization." Additionally, they would be able to see how effective the channels for sharing content and learning are, across and beyond the organization.

In the "not too distant future," Thomas says, Accenture will be in a position to create a "thermograph of an organization" to see where it leaks energy. "We would be able to identify the hotspots of innovation and the cold spots within an organization." This insight would also allow organizations to understand "not only where they're likely to have new ideas germinating, but also potentially new businesses forming," he adds.

Social network diagnosis—understanding how these networks live and breathe—requires software that tracks and exposes exchanges and interactions that took place via email, blogs, and brainstorming. These actions represent the network's circulatory system and can reveal a lot about the quality of collaboration.

Cross' research into how average networks stack up against those of high performers has convinced him that social networking software is fundamentally flawed. Cross believes that in the future, people need tools that can monitor exchanges and interactions to determine who the real topic experts are and to connect them with the group. Better yet, the software should play the role of the broker.      

The Right Stuff
Rather than allow people to call all the shots and proclaim themselves the experts to the group, the network should decide. Some more modest people may not think of themselves as the experts, or the agreed topic experts may be overloaded by requests from their peers.

Against this backdrop, a "skill locator" feature built into the fabric of social networks would go a long way toward promoting the energy and diversity that distinguish good networks from bad, Cross says. In his view software should feature a dashboard application that would "allow group members to view the communications and the connections to ensure the social network is in alignment with what the group wants to be and accomplish."

The industry isn't there yet. But a new online service built on software that will effectively mine the data on the computers of group members, to locate individuals with expertise and common interests, represents a quantum leap in this direction.

As we go to press, Tacit Software is taking the wraps off Illumio, a next-generation online collaboration tool that combines a search engine with social networking. The company is currently recruiting small groups of people to test its product.

Illumio was designed as a scaled-down version of Tacit's flagship ActiveNet product, which enables corporations such as Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Morgan Stanley to connect employees with the information they need.

The new Illumio product has been developed for people to use over the open internet. "We connect one group member to another group member based on the information on their computers," explains Chris Yeh, Tacit's VP of marketing. Armed with deep insight gained from scanning content such as documents, emails, favorites, and browser caches, Illumio can link people based on their shared interests and expertise.

Members can also send out a "blind request" for information they are looking for and count on Illumio to deliver a match by searching all the PCs in the group for people who fit the query.

"We use all the information on the PC to determine whether a member has talked about the topic, has written about it, or has a contact in Outlook, for example, who knows about it," Yeh explains. "We handle the privacy issue by relying entirely on the recipients of the search query—the people we have determined are a perfect match—to decide for themselves if they should respond or not."

Another product in the pipeline is Illumio Hotspot, a feature that would provide webmasters and group leaders with an icon they could add to websites to encourage exchange in the spirit of Illumio. Visitors to a site could join the Illumio community by clicking the icon. As with the original service, Illumio Hotspot would give members the option of responding to anonymous requests, allowing other members to pick their brains for opinions and expertise.

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