Social Machinery

Social Machines … not a very good title for what is likely to become a very important topic which will affect all of us.

‘Social Machines’, if you don’t know, is the term used for how technology can learn and support us better (or potentially to control us, some fear). For instance, technologies such as mobile phones, social media and wearable IT all capture data which can be used in many ways – for good or bad. We need to plan now for their use and their control, including how we ensure everyone’s privacy is protected.

You will probably be using social networks like Facebook and Twitter, where people not only interact socially but share experiences and solve problems. Social machines take this a step further, using software tools and networks of computers which link people to collaborate and co-create. They allow a large number of people to give a small amount of time or data to create a big effect, so allowing computing to adopt human traits to make judgements.

In the past we’ve built systems and collected data manually, for example by using surveys. Doing this at scale, such as gathering and analysing global weather data for forecasting, is complex and expensive and needs some very large computers. But web applications run on phones are free and can source data from the public for nothing. This sort of crowd-sourcing is nearly always more accurate (and quicker) than consulting experts. Weather, the economy, traffic, trends, news, health can all be tracked, based on real time information captured from social interaction, giving a faster, more accurate and more shareable means to predict and adapt. See Galaxy Zoo for example:

Social machines also have many commercial applications: in future you may walk past an electronic bill-board in the street and it will recognise your face, match it to your on-line shopping habits and leisure interests, and there and then present you with adverts relevant to you and your location. Clever stuff!

In my view this should not scare us, provided we remain in control, choosing whether and how to participate and what data to share. This means we all need a deeper understanding of the digital world beyond a grasp of the IT. Its like a driving a car.. you really don’t need to know what is under the bonnet to drive safely, but you cant drive safely is all you know is how the engine works.

Done well, these social machines can help with education, economic growth, employment, health and social care. The trick in the digital world is to ensure that we have developed our own understanding and new skills to protect our privacy (and then teach these to our children). At the moment too many people are still falling for basic phishing attacks.


Using Social Networking Tools for Internal Business Value

1.             Summary


Most organisations use social media tools, the majority internally as well as for customer communication and marketing. With growing pressure on CIOs to make maximum use of technology to improve efficiency, customer service and modernisation, taking a fresh look at the potential of social media has become a priority. But balancing the costs and benefits is important in building the justification for the investment in time and tools:


  • What are the direct and indirect costs?  
  • Where do the key benefits lie and how can they be secured?
  • What are the main risks such as security and reputation, and how are they best managed?
  • What level of discipline is required to ensure it is not just used as an internal Facebook?  – i.e. a fun and sociable, but also an addictive timewaster.
  • What is the priority and opportunity cost, compared with competing pressures?


This blog lays out some of the issues.


 2.             Background to Building a Justification


We are all familiar with the Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Blogs and Skype social networking outside work.  Increasingly these tools are being used within organisations – blogs, webcasts, Yammer, Huddle, LinkedIn for recruitment etc. 


The widespread success of these tools clearly indicates their potential value. Most organisations now use some form of internal social networking tools and over 85% of the Fortune 500 companies are apparently using Yammer for example. Yet Yammer was only founded in 2008.


The primary benefit is to improve internal communications and to help change culture and behaviours by allowing staff to communicate freely to solve problems more quickly, potentially also reducing the pressure on tools such as email. Done well, social networking can boost productivity and strengthen collaboration with suppliers, partners, customers and  staff, assisting change and improving morale.  Enthusiastic and creative minds can come to the forefront, helping to stimulate a culture of positive problem solving and innovation that can otherwise get lost particularly in a large organisation. 


Social media can also stimulate entrepreneurship, connecting people who can ensure an idea can flourish. In some smaller organisations, it can become so powerful that social media replaces the internal intranet and all other formal communications mechanisms.


Moreover, the tools are also easy to use, requiring little or no training. 


But it is not a panacea. If badly introduced, social media tools can bring unintended consequences:


  • Levels of pure ‘socialising’ which can have a negative effect on productivity.
  • Simply introducing more technology can compound the challenge of how to communicate well.
  • Lower morale as staff share woes, worries and gripes publicly.
  • Security issues if confidential information or documents are inadvertently shared.
  • An ‘us and then’ internal world of ‘cleeks and geeks’ where some do and some don’t use the new social media tools.
  • A shift in power – the social media zealots and experts can have a tendency to deny the risks and costs of social media and may use the mechanism subtly to subvert agreed priorities or policies.


These potential issues are all addressable by an open understanding of the pros and cons with appropriate levels of information governance and guidance.



3.             How then to build a business case for social media internally? 


There are three schools of thought:


  • Don’t try – simply allow the tools to find their own level, and, by their very nature of informality allow staff to use them as they see fit.  Staff are arguably responsible enough to make the best use of tools that they are given, and this is an area where too much corporate governance and control is positively unhelpful. Sufficient guidance and rules exist already in how tools such as these should be used.
  • Rigidly control with appropriate technology (who’s allowed to do what when), security and policed guidance and rules. Organisations adopting this model usually have strict technical controls or draconian sanctions for abuse and misuse – intended or inadvertent.  This at least initially helps staff to ensure what they can and cannot do, but makes adoption cautious, which limits benefits.
  • Controls with freedom – a half-way house between the above two examples, with initial use is limited to specific areas and projects, clear guidance on use and how to secure benefits is provided but with a general expectations that staff have the freedom to act responsibly.


Whatever option is adopted, a traditional ‘return on investment’ business case is pretty difficult to contrive.  It was never really possible when email was introduced either.  At the same time, the prioritisation of an internal social networking project (with consequential opportunity costs) is needed, with some many other things happening.  Even with a ‘free for all’ releasing a tool and ‘seeing what happens’, there will be costs in time and effort from staff, managers and IT professionals. Indeed, it is arguable that hidden and direct costs will be higher and benefits lower with too few controls, especially for large and complex organisations.   


Building a business case for the use of an internal social networking tool is therefore likely to focus on evidencing business value more than direct cost savings:


  • Team collaboration – solving business problems better and using collaboration to show faster and more efficient decision making. Areas such as health and social care are ideal.
  • Internal communication strategy – enabling staff to feel more engaged and ensuring a “top to bottom” use of communication technologies around social media, encouraging more informality and faster decision making. Staff feedback and interactions give good evidence.
  • Reducing the costs of other communications such as meetings, travel, email or indeed unnecessary use of other social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter at work.


An analogy: planting a wild flower meadow requires management and preparation of the land if the best and preferred flowers are to flourish.  At the same time, regular tilling and fertilizing artificially will probably kill any wild flowers.



  1. Conclusion


Internal social networking is inevitable.  However, doing it well and maximising the benefits that it can bring requires a degree of structure, planning and leadership. For social media to be an effective business tool therefore requires adoption to be much more than ‘Facebook and Twitter at work’ and its use needs planning so it is not just a distraction or a ‘gimmick’. 

If we are going to embrace social media tools internal and externally we will need accept levels of risk and be faster in our responses to staff and customers. This may be against a backdrop of cuts and efficiency drives that will not always sit easily together.

Some of this lies in the way the technology is introduced, with sufficient tools to allow the necessary controls and facilitation of groups.  Some of it lies in leading by example with senior managers supporting and encouraging information dialogue across the organisation and focussed on solving the organisation’s problems.


Choosing the right technology for a corporate environment is less critical, but its best to build on investments already made and standard solutions. Critically the choice must be informed by how the business needs to operate. For example, if HR increasing base recruitment on evidence and tools in LinkedIn (say) as many organisations now do, then it should be a mainstream tool for HR.


But above all the introduction of Social Media for internal use should be set up and managed as a project, addressing the potential business value above. In this way there can be greater confidence in steering a course between the risks and demonstrating the value in shifting away from more traditional means of internal communications.